Saturday, October 14, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette surprised me because it's a bit heavier than I was expecting. The trailer and reviews made it seem like just a series of parties, but there's actually a lot of depth here, and that's both a strength and a fault. It hurts the film because it gets bogged down at times, and can't function on the characters and visual moments. However, on the whole this is an original, striking portrait of a world that seems totally different, but has quite a few similaritites with our own.

The film has a striking opening sequence, showing Marie's removal from everything she's known to go to France. We see her as a natural, rather ordinary girl, still petty and adolescent. She goes on a carriage ride to the Austria-France border, where she's transformed into a totally made up, fashioned royal. The scene perfectly establishes the film's central theme, which is the way that the strict social rules of the court threaten to extinguish the life within Marie.

This early scene has some of my favorite visual stuff in the film. The blue of the coach is gorgeous engulfed by the forest. Most of the film is set at Versailles, which becomes suffocating. There's just so much stuff in the frame that it overwhelms everything. I think that's partially intentional, but it becomes exhausting. I suppose you could make the same complaint about the Japanese cityscape in 'Lost in Translation,' but I found that environment more interesting than the palace here. I do like the return of the main character with her face pressed up against a window while driving, which is clearly one of Sofia's signature images.

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of period films. I think people can get so focused on being historically accurate that they lose sight of telling a story about real people, and that's something that Sofia falls prey to at times. The one period film that was an unqualified success is Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, a film with a lot of thematic similarities to Marie Antoinette. Both are about the difficulty of navigating a very strict social environment, of conforming to custom at the expense of your own desires. What makes Lyndon so special is that we get the feeling that these are real people trapped in a bizarre world. They find the customs weird too, but nobody's going to stand up against them.

In Marie Antoinette, the best moments are the ones where we see Marie using her influence to redefine the rules of the court. The ridiculousness of their world is ably demonstrated by scenes like the first dressing and the tableau shots Marie and Louis eating. Louis is such a distant character, it's easy to relate with Marie's inability to get him to consummate the marriage. This is her one mission, and she's completely failing because he's off in his own world. The funniest exchange in the film was when Marie asks him whether he enjoys his locks hobby, and he responds simply "Obviously." She's trying to reach out to him, but he's giving her absolutely nothing.

At first, we see this conflict only from Marie's side. She takes all the blame for not making him want her enough to have sex. The letters from her mother make this desperately clear, she seems to have no allies in the palace. This reinforces the idea that she's a stranger in this world, and will always be an outsider until she produces a son. The film itself reinforces this pressure with scenes like the couple leaving the card game so that they can go make love more than five times, and also with the juxtaposition of DuBarry and Rip Torn going wild and Louis and Marie sitting perfectly still and separate.

Despite Rip Torn and Asia Argento's fantastic performances, this early part of the film is its weakest. The film spends too much time reinforcing the same points, and we too get bogged down in the malaise that Marie is feeling. DuBarry is a great character, but she never gets the chance to really do anything. The awkward conversation with Marie is good, and I get what Coppola's trying to do here, but I feel like we could get the same point and still lose five to ten minutes. Even though I liked the nod to All That Jazz with Marie's wakeup music, that particular beat was still played a few too many times. I feel like this whole half hour or so could have played better if it was played against some contemporary music and done in montage fashion rather than in individual scenes.

Much of the dialogue about the film has focused on Marie's shallowness, but I think her struggle actually had quite a bit of depth. Sofia's mission isn't to tell a history of 18th century France, so there's no need to give us a lot of context for what's happening outside the palace. Her goal is to tell the story of a girl taken from her home, placed in a foreign country as a diplomatic maneuver, and given the ridiculous task of producing an heir. That is her only value to the nations, to be a diplomatic object.

So, her partying and consumption becomes a way of rebelling against the task assigned to her. If he's only there to produce an heir, she might as well have as much fun as possible while doing so. And that's where the fun parts of the film come in. It's great to watch Marie clap at the opera and gradually watch as everyone else joins her. She is using her power to rewrite social custom, something that is also the subject of the "I Want Candy" montage, a tribute to her consumer excess, which becomes her method of rebelling against her set role.

I think a lot of the criticism for the film could come from the fact that it treats with seriousness the problems of someone who's got so much. I guess there's a tendency in cinema to reward films that deal with 'social problems,' like poverty and war, the malaise of an excessively rich woman doesn't exactly fit there. Yet, it makes sense for Sofia to tackle this, considering her background. She is essentially a princess, someone who could easily do nothing her life and still live comfortably, but she seeks to move beyond this role and claim an identity of her own. This is a film about celebrity, people who can buy anything they want except anonymity and the ability to return to what they once had. I don't see the film as "Paris Hilton in 18th Century France," this is a girl who didn't necessarily want to be famous, she had no choice.

It's notable that many of the critical figures in the film are people who grew up in privileged environments, not 'normal' childhoods. Sofia Coppola is the obvious one, but we've also got Asia Argento, another director's daughter. Kirsten Dunst was a child star, sharing scene with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at age ten. Jason Schwartzman is also a part of the Coppola family, and found similar early success. For a lot of directors, such as Martin Scorsese, it becomes increasingly difficult to find personal material to draw from for your films once you become famous. He couldn't make a film like Mean Streets today because his whole life is centered around the film industry. If you're working twelve hours a day on a set, it's going to be tough to write a 'normal' life. I'd rather see that disconnection from normal reality manifest itself in a film like Marie Antoinette, which approaches the problem in an allegorical way, than in another movie about making movies.

I think the film does a good job of displaying the simultaneous joy and difficulty of being in this sort of privileged position. Following the king's death, Marie turns the court into her own playground, doing whatever she wants and buying as much as she can. However, the film still shows the difficulty of living in the claustrophobic Versailles. Just watching those scenes I became uncomfortable, struggling to find the humanity in the excessive design and wardrobe. Two really powerful moments in Versailles are Marie's flight from the crowd, to hide and cry for her mother, and her desperate run to lie on her own and dream about Count Fersen. I particularly like her dreamscape of him, looking at her in the midst of explosions and battle. His exaggerated masculinity is such a contrast to the fey Louis.

But, those moments are rare, generally Versailles is a place of gossip and observation, where the slightest misstep will become the talk of the masses. The best moments of the film are the ones where Marie finds an escape, an ability to stop being the Dauphin and just be herself. The masked ball is a fine example of this, and one of the best scenes in the film. I love the design here, and the use of contemporary music feels completely organic to the world. Marie revels in her anonymity and we see her happier than she's ever been.

Even though I really liked the scene, I can't help but feel that it could have been just a little bit better. I was waiting for the film to launch into a really pop moment, but a lot of times, she seemed to rely more on the production design and wardrobe to carry the visual load, rather than the actual camerawork. The best moments in film are ones that make me gasp because they're just so stylish, or perfectly constructed to maximize emotion. I liked the visuals of the film and enjoyed the music, but there were only a couple of moments that really wowed me. The best moments in a film are ones that make me says "I want to do that" in my own work, and I didn't feel that too much here. That said, I don't think I have the budget for an 18th century costume drama, so perhaps that's for the best.

Despite that complaint, it was still a really strong scene. The scenes that I loved the most was Marie's time at her retreat. The nature shots recalled Malick, perhaps the highest compliment one can give to shots of nature. They also fit into his thematic universe, the idea that nature can be an edenic retreat from the destructive force of civilization. As Marie's leaving, she says she wants to wear something more natural, and she winds up in the plain white dress, a massive contrast from what she's wearing for the rest of the film. She walks through the fields and plays with her daughter, for the first time in the film, able to be on her own and be just a person, not an icon.

Throughout the film nature is used in this way, be it her ecstatic fall into grass after consummating the marriage or the scene in which she sits with two couples and watches the sun rise. That predawn hour looks incredible on film, giving everything a blue tint. It was notable that we never saw the actual sun rise, just the reflection of it in the pool. On the one hand, I wanted to see it, but their description of it as the most beautiful thing they've ever seen makes it impossible for any actual sun rise to live up to, and instead we're left with our mental picture of what it would be.

Then, at her retreat we get the wonderful scene where she and her friends are picking strawberries. This leads into her flirtation with Fersen and the ultimate consummation of their relationship. This is the time that she feels most human, she's gone through this weird ordeal, and now she gets to have her real adolescence, to experience first love and experiment with drugs on her own, away from any parental figures. It's like the archetypal college experience, only her order of development is screwy because of her royal status. Together with Fersen, she has an idyllic retreat from the world, moments that sustain her when she is eventually forced to return to the court.

The final chunk of the film deals with the gradual dissolution of the royal court. The film implies that it was Louis' decision to lend support to the American army that ultimately brought about his downfall. In the context of the time, it's the petty rivalry between nations that dooms France's monarch. He spends money that could be spent on his people to stick it to England, and that backfires in a huge way. The royals live in a rarefied world, it's easy for him to say we'll raise taxes slightly to justify the American expedition, but for the people on the streets, that tax raise becomes the tipping point.

I'm not sure if a contemporary reading was intended, but it's easy to equate Louis with Bush. Both are men born to great power, controlled by experts around them who guide their decisions. They each engage in foreign campaigns that throw the country into debt and result in a decline in popularity. Certainly the bubble around the royals has a lot in common with the bubble that Bush has built around his inner circle.

Our emotional reaction to the final sequences is interesting. In a traditional film, you'd sympathize with the underdogs and would be glad to see royal society breaking down. Certainly much of the early part of this film was concerned with the absurdity of the royal court. However, in the latter half, we see Marie take control of the court and turn it into a place for fun and revelry. It hurts to see her clapping alone at the opera, the first signal of her impending doom. And here, the "Let them eat cake" remark doesn't indicate arrogance, her dismissal of it is used to build up sympathy for her. I like her reading through the gossip column, debunking the myths about her, something I could easily imagine celebrities today doing.

With the peasants outside her door, her friends scatter, but she remains standing by Louis. After her experience with Ferson, I think she's ready to settle down, she's tasted love, but knows that it's not her destiny to be free. She has been placed into the role of Queen, and she will serve. This is a marked contrast from the beginning of the film, where she was eager to flee to Austria. I feel like the film is about her growing up, and in some ways, her arc resembles Pocohontas' in The New World, each is taken from their native environment and forced into a restricting civilization. However, through motherhood they get in touch with something essentially human that was hidden in the pageantry, and through this, they are able to accept a role within society.

The dining room scene at the end is notable for its emptiness. The entourage is gone, it's just Louis and Marie sitting in the dark. Outside, the sounds of peasant protest is overwhelming. They have little real power, but have become the symbols for all that is wrong in French society. Marie standing on the balcony, looking down at the masses is one of the most powerful visuals in the film, clearly illustrating the gulf between them. She has been raised in this world and has no chance of relating to the peasant concerns.

As the film ends, she is rushed through the masses to a coach, and winds up fleeing the place she came to at the film's opening. In the film's final line, she says "I'm saying goodbye," goodbye to the place, but also the lifestyle. The revolution signals the end of her class, and she knows that the bet she made, to marry Louis and be Queen, has gone awry. That was what the film was about, and this is the ending, we don't need to see her killed. Her world is gone, so her actual life is irrelevant.

I think the film's a lot deeper than the critical consesus would have you believe. Maybe it is Paris Hilton in 18th century France, but considering the world we live in, isn't a film that critically examines celebrity and privelege something worthwhile? I love the fact that there's no attempt to place her story in a larger historical context, we've seen that before, and I think most viewers will have a general idea of what happens after the film ends. It's a film about a critical moment of transition for human society and I think it does a great job of examining all the issues surrounding that.

Where the film falls down for me is in some of the execution. The actors all have different accents, and some of the dialogue falls prey to that clumsy period-speak. Some of Marie's lines recalled Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels, not a good thing. It also might have been good to limit the number of people in Marie's crew, she had a varying cast so we never got a sense of who she really cared about and who she was forced to be with. And I wish there were more fantastic pop moments like the scenes at the retreat. Not much in the first half of the movie really jumps out as a perfect movie moment. And I would have liked more music, particularly modern stuff. I think those songs fit perfectly into the world and would have preferred more of them over the period stuff.

But, the more the film sinks in, the more I'm liking it. I went in with a specific idea of what the film would be, and it didn't quite conform to that. However, I really like what Sofia did with it, and I think a second viewing would allow me to better get lost in the world that Marie inhabits. I'm not the biggest fan of period films, but this did enough to get past my prejudice and make these characters feel real. I also want to see it again because I missed Phoenix. Were they the guys with guitars singing to Marie, or were they in a different scene?

I think Sofia is one of the most interesting American directors now because she understands the fact that cinema is more about images and moments than narrative. She's a big Wong Kar-Wai fan and that really shows, Lost in Translation is the closest thing to an American Wong Kar-Wai film, and a lot of this movie's irregular narrative style recalls his stuff. However, to make a Wong Kar-Wai style movie work, your visuals and music have to be on, otherwise it can drag. For a lot of this film, it is, but the moments that aren't hold it back from the greatness of Lost in Translation or The Virgin Suicides. Like Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time, it puts the themes that she'd already developed on a much larger canvas. Ashes of Time was critical in opening WKW up to more adventurous, free style filmmaking, and this film will hopefully do the same thing for Sofia.

Looking at her three films, a priveleged, but uneasy young woman is her archetypal character. Each of them is imprisoned in some way. Lux and Marie are clearly held bac by parental expectations and strict behavior guidelines. Both revel in defying these restrictions, and have brief moments of love before their worlds fall apart. Charlotte and Marie are both alone in a crowd, unable to relate to anyone around them, and the search for those moments of connection is what drives them. Visually, Sofia is concerned with rich environments, full of visual activity and detail. Emotionally, she's all about bittersweet, moments of happiness peaking through a dull, sad world. And the men in her films are generally ineffectual and distant.

In terms of developing her oeuvre, I feel like Sofia is going in the right direction. Everyone has certain themes that attract them, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that Sofia make a war film or something like that. I'd like to see her work in the present again, but she is able to make periods come alive, so I'm up for pretty much anything from her. The thing I would most like to see is her Chungking Express, a quick, stylish film to counterbalance the big costume epic.

But, it'll probably be three years at least, considering she's about to give birth to her first child. But, I'll be there to see whatever she comes up with when it's time to start again. The only thing I really ask is that she let Thomas Mars and Phoenix do the soundtrack.


marsalis higgs. said...

I just wanted to say that your review was spot-on and brilliant. You also basically predicted "Somewhere," which is a "quick, stylish film" and is soundtracked by Phoenix. Amazing prophecy.

4rx said...

I've heard that "Marie Antoinette" is a good movie, at least that's what friends have told me about this movie, I hope I get an excellent feeling with this movie.