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Her luck will soon change: Kirsten Dunst, center, has the title role in Sofia Coppola's ultra-hip and occasionally anachronistic
Her luck will soon change: Kirsten Dunst, center, has the title role in Sofia Coppola's ultra-hip and occasionally anachronistic "Marie Antoinette." (Columbia Pictures)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006

Have you heard about "Marie Antoinette"?

If you followed the news from Cannes, you know Sofia Coppola's movie about the legendary French queen was booed at that storied proving ground. The Web is abuzz with detractors who accuse Coppola of confecting a spiritually bereft, apolitical spectacle of conspicuous consumption. Of indulging her own appetite for fashion, pop culture and high style. Perhaps most unforgivably, of being Sofia Coppola.

Having now seen "Marie Antoinette" with expectations suitably managed, the royal we have four words for the haters:

Let them eat crow.

It turns out that "Marie Antoinette" may be the most fascinating cinematic Rorschach test to come down the pike (or land on the pike, as it were) in a long time. With "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation," Coppola proved to be a gifted stylist with an unusual talent for evoking mood and atmosphere and emotional truth, but no one would have called those films particularly deep. With "Marie Antoinette," she has delivered a richly textured, swiftly moving and surprisingly insightful story that resonates far deeper than just the occasional glimpse of a Converse peeking out from the chintz or snippet of a Gang of Four song. With its creative anachronisms and ultra-hip sensibility, "Marie Antoinette" is sure to polarize viewers who will either decry the liberties it takes or love Coppola's irreverent but ultimately compassionate portrait of an easy-to-loathe monarch.

By turns riotously giddy and supremely serene, "Marie Antoinette" dispenses with the vague reveries that characterized Coppola's past work, resulting in her most narrative -- and ambitious -- film to date. But fans will recognize her eternal subject, the adolescent girl coping with coming of age. For Coppola, Marie Antoinette isn't the haughty queen whose heartlessness helped foment a revolution. She's a girl, as Scarlett Johansson's character described herself in "Lost in Translation," who in another era would be taking dumb photographs of her feet.

Of course, those feet happen to be shod in ever more outrageous Manolo Blahniks, as we see in "Marie Antoinette's" opening shot, when the film's captivating star, Kirsten Dunst, turns to the camera with a kittenish, inscrutable look. From this cipherlike image the film goes back in time to 1768, when Marie Antoinette's ambitious mother, the Queen of Austria (Marianne Faithfull), arranges her daughter's engagement to the Duke of Berry, the future Louis XVI of France. It's less a betrothal than a geopolitical merger, and when the 14-year-old Marie Antoinette travels to France to meet her intended, she is literally stripped of her past, bidding her friends, family and even clothes goodbye on a piece of land perfectly straddling Austrian and French soil.

The young dauphine who emerges is sweet, naive and wholly unprepared for the cloistered, ritualized life of the Versailles court, where she is a favorite of her husband's grandfather Louis XV (Rip Torn) and the subject of endless gossip on the part of her new family and retinue. Her marriage to the drippy Louis XVI, played by a worried-looking Jason Schwartzman, goes unconsummated for seven years, with the dauphin neglecting his dewy wife in favor of riding to hounds or indulging his hobby of -- wait for it, armchair Freudians -- making keys. Guided by the firm and joyless hand of the Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis), her chief attendant, Marie Antoinette is thrust into the routine of church-aspic-cards whose strict codes of etiquette soon threaten to suck the very life from her. She may join the other caviling ladies of the court in snubbing the Comtesse du Barry, Louis XV's lover (robustly played by Asia Argento), but there's a glimmer of longing behind the icy stare.

By the time "Marie Antoinette" gets to its most notorious scene--an orgy of champagne, petits fours and shoes set to Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy"-- it's clear that Marie's famous appetite for baubles and bows was less the character flaw of a spoiled princess than a pathological response to the double bind of being both painfully isolated and claustrophobically scrutinized.

Following the lead of Antonia Fraser, upon whose 2001 biography "Marie Antoinette" is based, Coppola suggests that the queen was less a conspirator in the crimes of the Versailles court than a passive, inexperienced pawn of it, a sovereign whose only means to power was through pregnancy. Dunst's warm, spontaneous and exuberant portrayal allows viewers to sympathize, or at least better understand, what led this teenager to become the symbol for all that was morally and politically indefensible about pre-revolutionary France.

Presumably, some of the criticism of "Marie Antoinette" stems from the fact that, like her subjects, Coppola never strays outside the gilded confines of the Versailles compound, nor does she go into any detail about the depth and depravity of the corruption that marked the reign of Louis XVI and his wife. But to accuse "Marie Antoinette" of being apolitical widely misses the mark when the movie is so much about the sexual politics of Versailles, where amid the profiteroles and peonies, Marie Antoinette's every move was subject to strict regulation and ceremonial control.

Coppola's use of New Romantic pop music works surprisingly well (there's only one misstep, when Marie returns from an all-night soiree to a hysterically pitched cover of "Fools Rush In"), and her injection of present-day signifiers and modern teen speak feels right and unforced, including the witty inclusion of a pastel tennis shoe amid Marie's fetishistic collection of footwear.

That well-placed sneaker could be a symbol of the inescapable parallels with Coppola's own life: She is a famous fashion plate herself, and travels with the same kind of cosmopolitan groovers that are depicted in the film ("I love your hair," one hanger-on says to another. "What's going on there?"). Coppola's access to Marie Antoinette's world goes even deeper than her ear for such louche cadences, having grown up the daughter of Francis Ford (Hollywood royalty), surrounding herself with a closely held circle of family and close friends (Schwartzman is her cousin) and being obsessively observed and vilified, from her ill-advised film debut in "The Godfather III" until this very day.

People will come to "Marie Antoinette" with their own predispositions and will most likely leave with them intact; in all her work, Coppola invites the audience's projections with an unusually large and porous canvas. But those willing to take the film on its own terms will be confronted with a portrait that, while perhaps unsettling in its revisionist sympathies, offers a valid provocation at a time when Americans are debating the costs of isolation, both personal and political. Far from mere spectacle, "Marie Antoinette" is instead a slyly subversive film, seducing viewers with its endless montage of sumptuous excess, but also daring them to empathize with the girl drowning in it.

Marie Antoinette (123 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity and mild sexual innuendo.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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