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This Marie Antoinette Has Her Head in a Totally Different Space

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

CANNES, France, May 24 -- As the final credits rolled Wednesday for Sofia Coppola's new candy-colored teen-dream film fantasy about history's most notorious poor little rich girl, "Marie Antoinette," the audience at the Palais du Festival began to hiss like a box of snakes. And then they booed.

Booing at the Cannes Film Festival, at a screening before an audience of a thousand international movie critics and film writers, is never a pleasant way for a director to start the day.

While no one in the mob was shouting "Off with her head," the European press couldn't resist the pun. "At Cannes, Marie Antoinette Guillotined," declared a 24-hour Swiss news station. (We were hoping for a headline writer to pop up with "Boo la la! Coppola's 'Antoinette' Is Headless Dummy.") Meanwhile, the French leftist weekly Nouvel Observateur posted on its Web site, "After a two-hour long projection, the reaction of the salle was one of the most negative since the beginning of the festival -- more hostile even than for 'The Da Vinci Code.' "

At a news conference immediately afterward, Coppola, who did not attend the morning screening, was asked about this. "I don't know about the boos," said the Oscar-winning (for her "Lost in Translation" script) filmmaker, blinking, looking a little startled. "It's news to me."

She added, "Well, that's disappointing to hear." Then Coppola rallied: "It's better to get a reaction; it's better than a mediocre response. Hopefully, some people will enjoy it. I think it's not for everybody."

Time will tell. The Cannes critics are just now typing up their reviews. The movie opens here in France this week, but is not scheduled to debut in the States until October. It is possible the hissing was a mostly Gallic reaction to the audacity of an American filmmaker taking on the most Frenchified of subjects, in English, with a mostly American cast, headed by Kirsten Dunst (who starred in Coppola's first film, "The Virgin Suicides") as the bonbon nibbler with big hair from Austria, and Jason Schwartzman as the pudgy (he gained 45 pounds for the role) asexual boy-king Louis XVI, whose hobby, we learned, was making keys. Press-notes trivia: Coppola and Schwartzman? Cousins.

The lobby buzz? The audience found the film either daring or dumb, a fun romp or a dull dance.

Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" is not your typical period costume drama. The actors don't speak stuffy BBC; they speak California teen mall. "I didn't want to do a historical epic," Coppola said from behind a pair of Ray-Bans, in an interview on the penthouse terrace of the Martinez Hotel, as the mega-yachts of the mega-rich bobbed at anchor in the bay below.

What she wanted was "an impressionist portrait," a retelling based on Lady Antonia Fraser's best-selling revisionist biography, and something of a renovation project. Coppola sees Marie Antoinette in a most sympathetic light -- not the heartless let-them-eat-caker of French Revolution propaganda and myth (the queen of France, according to most historians, probably never uttered the famous line), but as a sheltered teenybopper who was sent by her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa (played, dig this, by Marianne Faithfull), from the Hapsburg palace in Austria in 1768 at the tender age of 14 to marry Louis, who was only a year older and as clueless as she (it is believed the pair did not consummate their marriage for seven years).

Modern template: Princess Diana?

Toward this end, Coppola explodes the traditional Ivory-Merchant mold. Her soundtrack is not Mozart but post-punk new romantics '80s pop like Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow, whose hit "I Want Candy" thumps along in a montage that features Marie and her Versailles gal-pals pawing through boxes of shoes (designed by none other than Manolo Blahnik). Footwear fetishists take note: The sorbet-colored, flower-festooned mules are probably headed to a store near you. It's "Sex and the City of Lights."

And the costumes. Mon dieu. The fashion magazines have a year's worth of material (product tie-in alert: Coppola owns her own fashion line, Milk Fed).

Coppola wanted them in colors and textures -- a macaroon palette of pink, gold and pistachio -- that looked good enough to eat. In the film, the dresses are almost like characters themselves, designed by two-time Oscar winner Milena Canonero ("Chariots of Fire," "Barry Lyndon"), who used the 18th century as her inspirational template but then went way contempo.

What impressed Coppola was the fact that with the death of Louis XV (played by a randy Rip Torn), Versailles became a palace run by teenagers. "What struck me was how young they were," Coppola said. Imagine if your parents had suddenly died of smallpox while you were in high school and you could have all the keggers you wanted. That is the Coppola Versailles.

Marie Antoinette enters the court like "a kid on the first day at a new school," the director says. And there is definitely a "Mean Girls" vibe to the film, as the goofy-grinning Dunst enters a royal court populated by hostile, powder-wigged fops obsessed with gossipy back-stabbing, uttering lines like: "I wonder how long she'll last." Or better: "I love your hair! What's going on there?"

Marie seeks solace in small dogs (poor petite Mops!), a Seine of champagne, gambling, diamonds, shopping, opera, sunrises and the attentions of her gay hairdresser (no sex) and the hunky Swedish Count Fersen (sex, with white stockings and a fan).

"I wanted to make them in this bubble," Coppola says. So when the inevitable day comes and the bread-hungry mob arrives on their front lawn, "you're as surprised as they are."

Or are you?

Versailles was, to our modern eyes, very weird, and Coppola shows court life of the 1770s. The young king and queen, for example, were considered a kind of performance art duo, like John and Yoko. When they ate, the aristocrats of the day stood around and watched. Like Court TV. When, finally, Marie Antoinette gives birth to a potential heir, her boudoir is filled with spectators, who watch the action between Dunst's trembling thighs as if it were a closely fought soccer match.

The British comic and actor Steve Coogan, who in the film plays the Count Mercy D'Argenteau, the ambassador from Austria, said, "I think it shows that Sofia is true to her voice. I've seen the film, and it's consistent with all the qualities that make her films great in the past. People who like Sofia Coppola will love this film. People who don't won't, but then they're not really on her radar anyway."

Dunst, still with strawberry-red hair from making "Spider-Man 3," a color that undeniably looks better on screen than up close, defends the film by saying, "It's more of an auteur look at it. Not a history lesson." (She confesses that what she knew about the French Revolution before this project was a paragraph back in high school.)

In one scene in the movie, Marie complains of the ritual viewing of her morning toilet. "This is ridiculous," she says, naked, as she is dressed.

But no. As her maid of honor reminds her: "This, Madame, is Versailles."

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