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in Filmmaking
on May 24, 2006

Despite the subject matter, it was always going to be a little dicey premiering Sofia Coppola’s deliberately stylish, English-language, Yank-directed and anachronistically scored Marie Antoinette in Competition at Cannes, where, even on a normal day, audiences can resemble an angry lynch mob. And, from a business point-of-view, distributor Pathe’s opening of the film in France simultaneous with the Cannes premiere creates an interesting situation for U.S. distrib Sony Pictures who will have to either springboard off the film’s European performance or else actively ignore it when it debuts the film here in the fall.

This morning the Drudge Report linked to a wire report on the premiere: “But, despite sumptuous sets and costumes and a rollicking rock’n’roll soundtrack, the film is a disappointing and unconvincing story that prompted sniggers at points, and boos which drowned out the scattered applause at the end.”

But the reviews that are breaking this morning are a little more complex in their take on the film and make me want to see it. Jeffrey Welles slams it as “the shallowest and dullest historical biopic of all time,” focusing on the film’s decision not to dramatize many of the key historical points in Antoinette’s life, before giving the film a kind of backhanded respect:

In a way I almost admire the gutsiness of Coppola’s decision to make this into a wafer-thin movie. You might hate Marie Antoinette, as I did, but at least Coppola developed a thematic approach and then shot it that way and stuck to her guns. She deserves a kind of credit for this.

Kirk Honeycutt in The Hollywood Reporter way more positive:

In the revisionist Marie Antoinette, writer-director Sofia Coppola and actress Kirsten Dunst take a remote and no doubt misunderstood historical figure, the controversial and often despised Queen of France at the time of the French Revolution, and brings her into sharp focus as a living, breathing human being with flaws, foibles, passions, intelligence and warm affections. The movie slices through the cobwebs of history to seek the heart of the young Austrian princess whom 18th century political diplomacy thrust into a maelstrom of court intrigue and poisoned personal relationships without even asking if she minded.

Variety‘s Todd McCarthy is more mixed:

Let them have eye candy” pretty much sums up Sofia Coppola’s approach to her revisionist and modernist take on the famous royal airhead who in the end lost her head. It is far from unpleasant to watch an attractive cast led by Kirsten Dunst parading around Versailles accoutered in Milena Canonero’s luxuriant costumes to the accompaniment of catchy pop tunes. But the writer-director’s follow-up to her breakthrough second feature, Lost in Translation, is no more nourishing than a bonbon. Opening in France simultaneously with its Cannes bow, Marie Antoinette will depend for Stateside success in October release by Sony on its draw with teen girls and young women, who may warmly embrace the picture as a heady fantasy of luxury and riches.

And, perhaps confirming McCarthy’s hunch, here’s Anne Thompson:

I arrived bright and early for the Marie Antoinette screening this morning which was a delightful if slightly guilty pleasure for me. But it did not go over with the French press who booed this dainty trifle which tastes delicious and looks yummy and is sensual to the max…but is a little light on its feet. Any critic demanding intellectual content will wind up hungry for nourishment. I suspect that this will play best for young women. My 16 year old daughter will LOVE it.

And in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott have their competing says.

Here’s Dargis:

History remembers the queen for her wastrel ways, indifference to human suffering (“Let them eat cake”) and death by guillotine, but Ms. Coppola’s period film, which is playing in competition, conceives of her as something of a poor little rich girl, a kind of Paris Hilton of the House of Bourbon….

This is Ms. Coppola’s one idea, and it isn’t enough. Although early scenes of Marie Antoinette submitting to protocol — if she wants a glass of water, one servant announces her request and another fulfills it — do make her point, it soon becomes clear that the director is herself bewitched by these rituals, which she repeats again and again. The princess lived in a bubble, and it’s from inside that bubble Ms. Coppola tells her story. Thus, despite some lines about the American Revolution, which is helping drain the king’s coffers and starve his people, Ms. Coppola ignores what’s best about Marie Antoinette’s story.

Scott, however, likes it:

But though it depicts a confectionary reality in which appearance matters above all, Marie Antoinette is far from superficial, and though it is often very funny, it is much more than a fancy-dress pastiche. Seen from the inside, Marie’s gilded cage is a realm of beauty and delight, but also of loneliness and alienation.

It almost goes without saying that Ms. Coppola, daughter of Francis, is herself a child of Hollywood (as is Jason Schwartzman, her cousin). This is not to suggest that the film is veiled autobiography, but rather to speculate about why a movie about a long-dead historical figure should feel so personal, so genuine, so knowing.

The mixed response on the part of the critics may reflect a certain ambivalence, less about the movie itself than about our own implication in the rarefied society it imagines. To say it’s a lot like Hollywood is to say that it’s a lot like Cannes. Does that make us courtiers or Jacobins? Should we crown Ms. Coppola with laurels or hustle her into a tumbrel bound for the guillotine? I for one am happy to lose my head over Marie Antoinette.

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