At first glance, “Marie Antoinette”, directed by Sofia Coppola, might seem like your average historical biography movie. It follows the life of the famed French queen from her arrival in France to the end of the monarchy. Many people are familiar with this story, the tale of the queen who told the hungry people of France to eat cake, then lost her head.
However, while most biography movies tend to cover what happened to the person and their major achievements, this film takes a different path. Instead of just hitting the highlights, Coppola’s movie covers what Marie’s life might actually have been like on a day-to-day basis. Yes, it covers all of the major historic points, but much of the film serves as an example of what it must have felt like to be her.
The story starts in Austria, where young Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is being shipped off by her domineering mother to marry Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzmann), the heir to the French throne, as part of an alliance between the two countries. The marriage is an awkward one, and it takes a long while before it ever amounts to anything.
Meanwhile, Marie is having a great time living the good life thanks to the riches of the French monarchy. During this time, the French people begin to starve, and by the end of the movie, the revolution has begun.
The description might indicate that the movie is thin on plot, and in some respects, it is. There are a few notable events to speak of, and they mostly occur in the second half. The first half is a look at the wide-eyed Marie’s reaction to the elegance of the French court.
It is that elegance which is the driving force of the film. Beautiful sights are beautifully photographed. Much of the film is a cavalcade of opulence, with one extravagant scene leading straight into another. The visuals are indeed dazzling, and there is so much detail in each frame of the film that it would take several viewings to catch half of it.
Behind all this is a slower-paced story about the maturity of a girl displaced from her home into one of the most insane settings in history. Coppola, who directed “Lost in Translation”, is a director who takes her time. She doesn’t want to rush the story, and adds in delightful nuances to her characters along the way. The main danger of this film is those nuances getting lost amidst all the razzle-dazzle, but that danger is for the most part bypassed, especially due to the help of a strong performance from Kirsten Dunst.
A main criticism from early reviewers has been that the film is very shallow, with the visuals masking a lack of depth. Perhaps this is one of the points of the film. It is a look at a place in history notorious for its refusal to acknowledge reality. The French court continued to spend while the people starved. They are shallow by nature, raised to regard only their own comfort. That is the kind of people they are, and that is what the film reflects.
This is all brought to a point in the end when the monarchs are forced to face the discontent of the people that now threatens their lives. The scenes near the end are near terrifying, as the mood of the film so far comes crashing down like the monarchy itself. It’s a dissolution that is not only central to history, but to the film as a whole. It turns the joyride into a tragedy, the opulence into significance.