My 2006 top-ten ranking: 9.
Risk of spoilers? Let me put it this way:
At Versailles there once was a Queen
Married into the court at fifteen
One misquoted line
She was asked to resign
By a very polite guillotine
Angular guitars spike over the end of the Annette Bening Columbia logo. Awkward pink monospaced text on black as the drums kick in. The screen goes totally black. John King of Gang of Four sings “The problem with pleasure / What to do for leisure? / Ideal love a new purchase / A market of the sense” Cut to Marie Antoinette as we have always imagined her — a representation of luxury, lassitude and boredom. She’s elaborately dressed in vibrant glimmering silky whites, feathers in her hair. A maid affixes a shoe to her foot. Cakes surround her in her powder blue Versailles drawing room. She reaches over lazily and swipes her finger across the icing of a cake, and then inserts her finger into her mouth to lick it off. Only then does she notice us watching her, and seems does a double take upon noticing us. She looks right at us. Her surprise softens into a light, wry smile, and she leans back and closes her eyes, fully aware of our presence.
Is this the Marie Antoinette — forever held in the mythic populist French mind, trapped in the layers of misconception and politicization — that has been waiting in luxurious hibernation for a more unbiased telling of her story? Maybe this is the classical French queen, the one that the crowds expected to find eating cake as they stormed the Versailles, the one that is indifferent to human life — even her own?
It cuts again to black and we have the pink ripped paper credits evoking Never Mind the Bullocks here’s the Sex Pistols (“God Save the Queen” anyone?). The message is clear: this movie is not about supporting history or historical film as we have come to know it. This film is defying that history. It’s about subverting genre. It’s about subverting our previous visions of Marie Antoinette (the clearest modern analog I can think of is Florida’s Katherine Harris, with her “Let them eat prayer” attitude).
It subverts genre by re-imagining the genre. Instead of falling on the trite and expected classical scores, Coppola brings — seemingly — her own musical tastes from the part of her life when she was the age of Antoinette. By bringing in New Order and Gang of Four, the woman who was a teenager in the 80s when this music was new finds a way to connect to a very teenage feeling. She brings a sensation of human developmental age to Antoinette. The usual mode is to imagine the young and regal as wise and cultured.
This movie, about a teenage queen reacting to the great forces of will and power around her, barely cracked the top tens this year. I suspect that has a lot to do with the filmmaker, whose past and whose family apparently overshadow any of her successes. But I’m not interested in talking about the director in any context but her work. Anything less, I say, smacks of sexism and the gofugyourselfification of our nation. I personally don’t care about canned champagne and I certainly don’t think that Godfather III was her fault (for that, I blame her father). I don’t care what she wears or who she dates. Worse yet, mocking her on these levels without fully considering her work apart from them is ridiculous.
Let’s consider the movie in terms of visuals — the eye popping and sensual costumes, the amazing privilege of actually filming in Versailles. About Coppola’s understated and quite effective ways of portraying a beheading and the sacking of Versailles. The food, as richly decorated as the gilt walls and silked stockings, looked sumptuous, magnificent and delicious. Coppola surrounded herself with craftspeople of amazing skill and gave them an opportunity to do their best work.
But the thing she did most successfully was take modern music, layer it onto the 18th Century story without it being ironic. The movie itself is remarkably earnest, and she uses the music much better than other directors acclaimed for this (Cameron Crowe, I’m thinking of you — your music always breaks my suspension of disbelief because it outweighs the film its scoring). I felt a connection between the music and the queen’s emotional state that felt connected and real to me, unburdened by the snark of sarcasm.
And maybe that’s what confused some people about this. Coppola knows irony — see Lost in Translation, starring the modern crown king of it; see one of her first jobs behind the scene, costuming the pretty funny Spirit of ‘76 — but refrains from using it to spoil the moments in this film.
All that said, I didn’t completely emotionally connect with Dunst as Antoinette, but I discount that because I don’t know if it would be possible for me to do so on any deep level. How can we experience, really, the emotional landscape of Versailles in a time of revolution? In modern terms the appropriation of wealth by the very few while the country literally starved around them is horrible to consider. Antonia Fraser in her book, and Coppola in this film ask us to consider the teenage queen from another perspective, but just because Antoinette didn’t speak her infamous line, or if said line was taken out of context, doesn’t excuse the excesses that defined the time. Maybe she didn’t deserve her fate, but history is what history is. Or, as Alec Baldwin said in State and Main “So…that happened.”
Anyway…what’s so great about being royalty? The Queen asked that same question this year. It brings to mind the last line of the Gang of Four song that opened the movie: “This heaven gives me migraines.”Where we saw it: Movie Theater | We deign to rate it: 90 outta 100