I was finally able to see Sofia Coppola’s latest film, Marie Antoinette, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of my favorite films of the year. I am actually very surprised by the vastly different reactions to this film. It’s garnered the highest ratings from critics like Roger Ebert and but also scathing reviews from other critics and from some audiences. I don’t personally know anyone who liked it and that’s something I don’t understand.
There are two things Coppola does extremely well. She portrays the interior life of women truthfully and sympathetically and she is a master of pace and tone. Each of her films is a meditation on what it means to be a woman adrift on the sea of life- bound to convention and unsure of her place. I wonder if audiences who expect traditional narratives, especially in the case of an historical figure, can appreciate the poetry of Coppola’s storytelling. In fact, Coppola has not met with this kind of resistance before. Both of her previous films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, were almost universally acclaimed and yet both of those films utilized the same style of filmmaking. Marie Antoinette is merely a continuation of those other films and yet maybe they were easier to swallow because The Virgin Suicides was a faithful adaptation of the novel and Lost in Translation was an original script. When Coppola dares to place a well-known character into her own unique world she is met with criticism.
But it’s Coppola’s signature mark on the material that I found so compelling. The film utilizes a dreamy sense of time and pace where each scene melts into the next and the audience is able to experience what it would be like to live as a young, inexperienced and often transitory ruler. Marie Antoinette is taken from her home in Vienna at the age of 16; she is unsure of her place because of her husband’s unwillingness to consummate the marriage for five years, which undermines her responsibility to provide him with an heir. Given nothing else to do and under pressure from everyone to seduce her husband, she passes her long days by observing court protocol, spending money, eating sweets, buying clothes and partying. She is given very little information about the mounting poverty and turmoil occurring throughout the rest of France. When her father-in-law dies, the new king falls to his knees and prays for help, saying, “We are too young to rule.” Louis is convinced by his council that he should aid America in its Revolution to make a statement against England, but perhaps his decision and Marie’s ignorance of her country’s plight are fatal errors that lead to their demise.
But before that happens Coppola uses modern music, blurry landscapes, gorgeous production and costume design and surrealistic photography to capture a sense of immediacy that I’ve never seen in another period film. I was reminded of Terrence Malick and Gus Van Sant in the way the director focuses on how natural and man-made environments impact her characters. Marie is happiest after she is finally able to mother two children. She trades her high fashion for simple white gowns and spends most of her time outdoors gardening and reading philosophy. She acquires, briefly, a contentment that her former life never provided. By the end of the film I was moved in a way I never expected to be by this girlish queen who had very little control over her own destiny.