Friday, June 22, 2012

Sofia Coppola Goes 0-3 With Marie Antoinette.

The Good: Looks wonderful, Moments of acting, General story
The Bad: Terrible musical direction, Awkward camera movements, Dull, Dull characters
The Basics: Lush and easy to watch, there is a serious lack of engaging plot or intriguing characters, making Marie Antoinette a well-produced, overblown game of dress-up.

After finding a movie where Kirsten Dunst neither insulted my intelligence nor disappointed me on a character and acting level - Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (reviewed here!), for those keeping score - someone recommended that I give Marie Antoinette a shot. When I picked it up, I was ready to give it a fair shake. I even watched the Spiderman 3 trailer on the DVD before starting the movie to cleanse my palate. I was prepared for a decent period piece on Marie Antoinette, featuring Kirsten Dunst. When Sofia Coppola's name came up on screen, I was set on guard.

Marie Antoinette is sold to the French as a diplomatic gesture to solidify relations between Austria and France. Antoinette surrenders her past to be married to the indifferent Louis XVI, who seems more interested in locks than lovemaking. After an insufferable period wherein Louis refuses to consummate the marriage, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette get it on, have a baby and Louis becomes embroiled in helping the fledgling American colonies in their war of independence, which becomes a real challenge to maintaining the monarchy.

The irony - or coincidence - I experienced while watching Marie Antoinette came in the form of a conversation I had a few days ago. A friend and I were talking movies and I posited that the director of Crash (reviewed here!) was robbed for the Best Director Oscar in favor of Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (reviewed here!). Our conversation continued with a discussion of how there is a difference between great cinematography and direction. Lee, for example, created a cinematographic masterpiece with Brokeback Mountain, but I remain overall unimpressed by the direction of the work. Such could be said of Sofia Coppola's work on Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette is an exceptionally good looking piece through much of the movie. The colors are vibrant and the contrast is set very high, making this a bubblegum pink lush movie. The costuming and cinematography are downright wondrous at points. The establishing shots of the palaces, gardens and many of the characters are visually exciting.

But, it's a terribly directed work. Coppola insists on playing with the camera and the result is more sloppy than stylish. One moment that sticks out quite loudly in my memory - when I have a problem with a movie, it seems I always leave out something! - is when Antoinette is upset and she turns around and cries into a door. Coppola goes from a steadycam shot to a handheld to give a real "in your face, up close and real" feel and it's terrible. The camera movement is awkward and cheap and the effect nets no positive results. In short, it does not aid the viewer in understanding the character or the story and it does not look good. Coppola's direction is unimpressive and disappointing for a director who is directing her own work (Sofia Coppola wrote the screenplay for this film).

The only person who deserves less to be making movies is the musical director of Marie Antoinette. The soundtrack to this movie is a mix of classical music and pop-rock-dance numbers. The rock song that plays when Antoinette sneaks off to a ball with other nobles is grotesque. The effect would be best analogized as watching porn with a Garrison Keillor monologue as the soundtrack. That is the level of incongruity in the visuals and music in Marie Antoinette. There's someone who ought to lose their head, or at least be forced out of the movie-making industry.

But, let's be honest for a moment; Marie Antoinette is a puff piece. It looks fabulous, but it's terribly put together. This is not a serious endeavor and I say that with utmost confidence because from the opening moments there is not a single person speaking with an accent. The Austrians and the French in this movie all sound like Middle America. There are moments when Dunst, as Antoinette, slips into a Southern drawl that would be laughable were it not so tragic. The closest actor to affect anything of an accent is Jason Schwartzman, who plays Louis XVI. Whether Schwartzman actually takes an accent or not is up to debate, but he does mumble his lines quiet enough to make one wonder if he is at least trying to sound French.

Lacking any sort of accent, all that defines the French as French are the snooty looks they give Antoinette when she arrives in Versailles.

The best aspect of Marie Antoinette would have to be the acting and that's a mercy rating; most of the characters do not have much to say. Much of Marie Antoinette is a series of beautiful shots of characters agonizing, Antoinette going through her daily routine, day after day, not making love with her husband. I don't believe all of Dunst's lines in the movie would take up five pages. She is on screen a lot, but much of the time, she is simply seething in silence at Schwartzman, who is ignoring her.

The three principle actors are adequate. Rip Torn is wonderful - while he lasts - as Louis XV. Torn dominates his scenes and his booming voice is distinctive and wonderfully contrasts the meek and indifferent Schwartzman. Schwartzman, for his part, convinces the viewer he has absolutely no interest in Kirsten Dunst, which makes his role believable, if not entirely understandable.

Kirsten Dunst, sad to say, is nothing superlative here. Yes, she has the title role, but the role isn't all that impressive. Dunst does what she can with it but throughout the whole movie there is something unsettling about her. I finally pinned it down; from the moment she first appears on screen, she is far too clean. Dunst's teeth are immaculate, as are everyone's in the film. Blinding white teeth fit the look of the film, but not the realism.

There are movies lately that have done updates of classic works, the Luhrmann version of Romeo + Juliet being perhaps the most successful, but that does not mean that the concept always works. Coppola's Marie Antoinette seems to not know what it wants to be and it ends up as a mishmash, the look half-heartedly tries to be classic while the sound is nothing classic. Just because others successfully try a concept does not mean any director can do it and Coppola here illustrates she cannot.

The ultimate description of how Marie Antoinette works as a movie is this: if you enjoy watching people playing dress-up, this is a movie for you. The characters are not exciting and they don't do much of anything, but they frequently change outfits. If Dunst got to keep her wardrobe, I could see her being a very happy young woman. But basically, the net result of watching the two hours of Marie Antoinette, what I'm left with is the feeling that I just watched several people who looked too modern for a period piece playing dress up.

And I want my movies to be more than that.

And barring that, I'd like for Sofia Coppola to either make a decent movie or get into a vocation more suited to her talents. Out of the three full-length movies she has directed, I've now seen all three (her short, "Lick The Star" has eluded me, but I've almost no incentive to see it now) and all have disappointed me terribly. As a cinematographer, perhaps she could make some real lush music videos. Or commercials for Target.

For other works with Rose Byrne, be sure to check out my takes on:
X-Men: First Class
28 Weeks Later
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones


Check out how this movie stacks up against others I have reviewed and visit their reviews by going to my Movie Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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