Marie Antoinette led a frivolous and extravagant (if sometimes unhappy) life before meeting up with the guillotine at age 37, and that seems to be why so many critics at Cannes were quick to assign the same qualities to Sofia Coppolla‘s film. Certainly "Marie Antoinette" doesn’t circumscribe any typical biopic arc â€” the once Queen of France’s defining duties were to exist as a political token, to be on constant display, to visit with other nobles to reassure them of their social status, and to produce an heir. Not particularly personal tasks, and, if the film has any argument, it’s that Marie’s triumph was actually managing to find joy in them. But even that argument is beside the point â€” the film’s main purpose to bringing a historical icon to glorious, imperfect life. Versailles may have been a gilded prison, but why be coy? It was also extraordinarily swank, and "Marie Antoinette" revels, with a wink, in the luxury. There are montages of shoe shopping and confectionery, there are fabulous outfits, there are whirlwinds of parties and just plain delightful moments like the scene in which Marie and company run down the steps in the garden in full finery and watch the sun rise by the water.
The film’s much-discussed anachronisms â€” the 80s New Wave soundtrack, the defiantly contemporary casting (particularly a licentious Rip Torn and a befuddled Jason Schwartzman
as the Louis XV and XVI) and dialogue â€” are stylistic choices, but they’re also
attempts at humanizing life at court. Marie, the film urges, was just your standard flighty, irrepressible
teenager when she took her place as a political chesspiece…and yes, this does comes across a bit apologist. After all, her mother, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (played in the film by Marianne Faithfull), established herself as a formidable political figure â€” Marie choose to swaddle herself in gossip and excess, only to discover that the increasingly remote real world was turning against her for reasons she seems barely able to grasp. That the latter third of the film accelerates through the birth of one child and barely sketched-in loss of another, the "let them eat cake" line, the shift in public sentiment, and the American Revolution with scarcely a pause shows exactly how concerned it is with historical developments over grand gestures, which would be not at all. And the film has one more grand gesture to celebrate: When the palace is being stormed, Marie goes out onto the balcony to greet the angry mob calling for her blood. She gathers herself, and then gracefully sketches a bow, and despite their fury and disdain, everyone in the crowd falls silent.
There’s no way around it â€” it just looks so good.
Screens October 13 and 14 at Alice Tully Hall; opens in theaters October 20th.