by Luke Bumgarten & r & & r & Marie Antionette & r & To avoid any confusion, let me begin by saying that Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is not so revolutionary as to revitalize period cinema. Neither, though, is it so facile and shallow as to kill it completely. That seems to be a fear/hope a lot of people have, which is a testament to the perception of Sofia Coppola as a paradigm-shifting director and to the strange story of Marie Antoinette.
To waylay your fears and temper your hopes, then: This film will do nothing to the bulk of period cinema, which will continue on, mostly unchanged, as long as culture-deep misogyny remains, while class struggles still exist and while scads of romantics still find the "marry for love or marry for money" conundrum a tragic and beautiful thing. Rest assured, you'll still get your Jane Austen unsullied by revisionism. So that's that.
These hopes/fears, though, aren't overreactions. Marie Antoinette definitely isn't the usual period drama. It lacks many of those elements that we've come to associate with the genre. The strangest thing about Coppola's film is that there's very little about class and no real tone of gender inequality. There's no question of marrying for love or money. There isn't even a question of which rich dude to marry. There's very little choice for Marie (Kirsten Dunst) at all. Born a woman of high birth, her job was to be married off, to produce a son, and thus to seal an alliance between France and Austria.
So that's where the proto-feminism usually comes in. The strictures of courtly life rub wrong against a spirited, young, independent woman. But Coppola's never really been into that kind of proselytizing. Indeed, we knew going in that a character like Marie Antoinette would resonate with the Coppola we know from The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. Marie, after all, was the mascot for the excesses of the monarchy; she was demonized and eventually killed, even though her alleged excesses may have been exaggerated.
Coppola takes people without any of the workaday problems that the majority of society has -- people who have no real lack of money or prestige or ease of living -- and humanizes them for us. Perhaps because she has lived a charmed existence herself -- and nevertheless has become a kind of thoughtful, compassionate, sad character -- Coppola has previously shown the listless sorrow that can come from living too deeply inside your own pampered-ass head. Her characters, rather than becoming tragic heroes or just human tragedies, struggle until they reach resolution, or at least come to terms with their problems. In The Virgin Suicides, the romanticism of the final suicides grated against the rest of the film's stoic contemplation. In Lost in Translation, the response to the similar issue of aimless, shallow existence was a mix of perseverance and reflection, a deepening of one's life not through action but self-understanding.
In Marie Antoinette, though, the character doesn't allow for the reflection. But Coppola isn't content to make the queen a romantic figure. Sofia's Marie ultimately takes solace in the tradition she's been born into, electing to stay with the husband she didn't choose and whose sexual timidity and dysfunction caused her a decade of distress. That's not a cloyingly Hollywood ending, but neither does the character's lack of development have the ultimate resonance we might have hoped for.
It's incredibly difficult to process, deep in the escapism of the cineplex, a film that says, simply, some lives neither succeed beautifully nor fail catastrophically. Some lives -- even those lived without want or reflection -- just are. For that transgression, Marie Antoinette will be both loved and reviled.