By John H. Foote
The first film Sofia Coppola directed after her brilliant, career altering Lost in Translation (2003) was her dream project on the young queen, Marie Antoinette. Armed with an Oscar for her Screenplay, and a nomination for Best Director for Lost in Translation (2003), The first American woman to be so honoured, she found herself in the enviable position of doing pretty much anything she wanted, within reason. What she wanted was to make a film about the young queen who was overthrown and executed by her people during the French Revolution.
She managed to get permission to shoot the film on location at Versailles, though she was limited to weekends and holidays.
There is a striking moment of quiet power in the film I have never been able to shake. With an angry crowd at the gates of the palace calling for the deaths of the young King and Queen, Antoinette emerges unto a balcony above the mob. She walks to the railing and arms outstretched, bows her head offering herself to the mob in what is also a grim foreshadow of what is to become of her. The mob goes silent, quieted by her courageous gesture which suggests she cares more for her people than her life, her throne. They are not quiet long, the fury sweeping through the crowd, driving the royal family out of the palace into hiding. It is a powerful, humbling moment, made unforgettable because we have the advantage of knowing her future. She is at that moment, utterly doomed.
Coppola’s film deals with the young princess of Austria being given in marriage to the peculiar Louis, heir to the throne of France. She goes through the rituals of being stripped naked of everything Austrian, and emerges a princess of France. Her marriage is not consummated for years, the groom having no interest, or a greater interest in locks and the hunt.
The director makes a startling connection between modern day royalty and celebrity, an example being a Princess Diana with the sort of celebrity Antoinette had at the time. She was a great influence for a time, laughing and leading applause at operas and plays where previously applause was forbidden, she led fashion with what she wore, and refused to be a bird in a cage, she wanted to party, to enjoy herself. There is a wonderfully bold shot of the queen cavorting in new shoes, piled high around her and sitting among them is a Converse running shoe. The future has reached back to be a part of the past to demonstrate that so little has changed.
The soundtrack is alternative music, the slick hip music of the alternative set, rock, but not quite rock and roll, and too odd to ever be pop.
When I heard Kristen Dunst had been cast as Antoinette I was at once concerned as I did not believe she had the depth to pull the role off. She had been very good years before as the manipulative vampire child in Interview with the Vampire (1994) but had not done much since to suggest she could do justice to Antoinette.
She was, I concede, a revelation, perfect in the role. Coppola saw what many did not in the actress and she was remarkable as Antoinette, capturing the innocence of one too young to rule, growing into a steely leader who would not give the revolutionaries her tears. It is a formidable performance in a bold, daring film that could have gone so very wrong but never does. A few years later, Dunst gave another revelatory performance in Melancholia (2011) a study about the impending if the world as seen through the eyes of her character. Never again, never, will I question her gifts as an actor.
Miss Coppola directs with the same confidence, it is brash without being arrogant, the same style as her father, though less operatic, serving the story, her screenplay first. She manages to work wonders on the forty-five-million-dollar budget she has to work with, her epic looks like a hundred-million-dollar film. Yet her goal was to make an intimate film about a doomed young woman, a latter-day celebrity not unlike those of today. The parallels she draws are uncanny, so much has changed, yet so much is the same. It is a great film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.