Thursday, June 22, 2017

Marie Antoinette (Columbia, American Zoetrope, Pricel, Tohokushinsha, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a peculiar movie from the DVD backlog: Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola’s 2006 adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, which attempted to refute a lot of the allegations made about Marie Antoinette from her own time to the present, and in particular the line she’s supposed to have said, when told that the people of France were starving for bread, “No bread? Well, then, let them eat cake!” (This was actually an urban legend about clueless royals that first appeared in print about 100 years before Marie Antoinette’s time.) The film was both written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and it’s a frustrating movie because she did so many things right and so many things wrong. The biggest thing she did wrong was deciding to score the film not with the music of the period (though Marie Antoinette was a big opera fan, and we know as a matter of historical fact who her favorite composer was: Christoph Willibald Gluck, a German who’d first achieved fame in Italy, then won the appointment as court composer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna; the reason we know Gluck was Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer was that when she left Austria to become first Dauphine and then Queen of France, she spent a lot of the French court’s money to hire Gluck away from Vienna and bring him to France — and Gluck was so renowned in his own time that when he left the Austrian court hired Mozart to replace him but only paid Mozart half of what they’d paid Gluck) but with modern-day rock songs, specifically from the so-called “New Romantic” sub-genre popular in the early 1980’s.

The soundtrack list includes “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four (heard under the opening credits, and a jumbled set of lyrics which may have something to do with the extreme inequality of wealth and income typical of both 18th century France and the 21st century world, but the only word I made out clearly was “fornication”), “Jynweythek Ylow” and “Avril 14” by Aphex Twin, “I Don’t Like It Like This,” “Pulling Our Weight” and “Keen On Boys” by The Radio Dept., “I Want Candy,” “Aphrodisiac” and a lame cover of the Johnny Mercer-Rube Bloom standard “Fools Rush In” by Bow Wow Wow, “Plainsong” and “All Cats Are Grey” by The Cure, “Ceremony” by New Order, “What Ever Happened” by The Strokes, and “Ou Boivent Les Loups” by Phoenix, who got into the movie because their lead singer, Thomas Mars, is Sofia Coppola’s boyfriend. (This movie reached pretty big heights of nepotism: Sofia’s cousin Jason Schwartzman was cast as Louis XVI, her brother Roman Coppola was the second-unit director, her famous dad Francis Ford Coppola lurked around the shoot as an éminence grise, and her mom Eleanor directed the “Making Of” featurette on the DVD.) Just about every time Sofia Coppola and her staff, including cinematographer Lance Acord, art directors Pierre do Bousberranger and Anne Seibel, set decorator Véronique Melery and costume designer Milena Canonero, managed to create a convincing illusion that we were really in the late 18th Century at Versailles and Trianon, France, she trotted in one of those damned rock songs to blow the illusion and turn Marie Antoinette into a sumptuous music video. The one time one of the rock songs actually worked the way Sofia clearly intended it to was the use of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” over a montage of the preposterous cakes, pastries, candies, aspics and other lavish desserts that were a regular feature of Marie Antoinette’s dining table — indeed, there are so many lovingly shot and lit close-ups of insanely luxurious comestibles Charles joked that the middle third of the movie was “food porn.” (My own joke was that maybe they were going to debunk the legend that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake,” but they were sure going to surround her with an awful lot of cakes.)

The other big thing Sofia Coppola did wrong was set virtually the entire movie in Versailles and Trianon, showing us Marie Antoinette’s world with no intimation of what was going on in the rest of France. I can see why she made this decision — she wanted to show just how hermetically sealed the French royal court was from the rest of the country and how clueless they really were about what their insanely extravagant lifestyle and foreign adventurism (including striking a blow against the rival European superpower of the time, Britain, by aiding the revolutionaries in America) was doing to the economy of France and the welfare of its people — but as we get scene after scene of insane splendor, with the characters wearing sumptuous clothes, ridiculous hairdos (there’s a scene of Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette resting in her prop bathtub — remember that this was a time when taking a hot bath was itself a luxury item since the water had to be heated by fire and carried in by minions with buckets — and getting sprayed with modern hair spray to get her hair to stand up in an historically accurate fashion, which made me wonder how they did it in the pre-aerosol 18th century) and powdered wigs (in Fraser’s book she mentioned that the French used so much talcum powder at court it provoked a worldwide shortage of the stuff), living in rooms of absurd size, grandeur and opulence and gorging themselves on sweets, the sheer weight of the spectacle gets oppressive. Indeed, as the movie was drawing to a close I was beginning to think, “Will the French people please hurry up and start the Revolution already?” I said that when the movie had only about 15 minutes left to run, just before the courtiers at Versailles received word that a mob had just stormed the Bastille, following which they got word that another mob was on its way to Versailles itself to loot the palace and hopefully capture the king and queen — and, oddly, Sofia Coppola decided to end her movie with the monarchs fleeing Versailles for the countryside, a trip arranged by Marie Antoinette’s friend and lover, Swedish ambassador Count Axel Fersen (Jamie Dornan, who doesn’t have the almost unearthly beauty of Tyrone Power, who played the part in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette, but he’s hot enough he’ll do), without mentioning that they were caught shortly thereafter and spent their last days in prison in Paris before the revolutionaries got around to executing first him and then her — events Antonia Fraser described in her book.

Now for the good things about Marie Antoinette. First, the physical production is incredible; Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in the actual historical locations, even though Versailles was in the middle of a big restoration at the time so there were only parts of it she could use[1] — and, as was explained in the making-of featurette, they could use the rooms themselves and show the art but they could not use the historical furnishings or drapes: they had to make their own replicas and bring them in. Second, instead of copying the past-is-brown look her dad did so much to establish as movie orthodoxy in The Godfather, Sofia Coppola and her cinematographer and art directors designed the movie in pastel tones, copying the look of French paintings of the period — especially those set outdoors, which often featured pastel-dressed members of the French 1 percent cavorting in similarly pastel natural settings. (The real Marie Antoinette was fond of playing at being a shepherdess, and she even staged amateur theatrical productions in which she could play a peasant, one of which is shown in the film.) In the making-of feature, she and her staff said they went out of their way to avoid showing bright colors — except for the vivid red dress worn by Asia Argento as Madame Du Barry, marking her as a “scarlet woman” both literally and figuratively — and the look is absolutely stunning. Also, Sofia Coppola deserves credit for casting the movie quite creatively; I’ve been a fan of Kirsten Dunst since the played the little-girl vampire in Interview with the Vampire (in which she and Antonio Banderas totally stole the movie out from under the nominal stars, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) and I marked her as being headed for a major adult career; maybe she hasn’t been the superstar I thought she’d become, but she has had a good career and she and Sofia Coppola have worked together since (notably in the recently released film The Beguiled, a quirky choice for a remake since the 1971 original, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as a Civil War soldier who ends up in a house full of women who are so intent on keeping him there one of them does an unnecessary amputation of his leg, was a major box-office flop; fortunately Eastwood and Siegel immediately followed it up with Dirty Harry and rehabilitated both their careers). I would have liked a bit more temperament from Dunst in the role but she plays Sofia’s cool reading of the character brilliantly and is totally believable in the part — certainly more so than Norma Shearer in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette (based on a biography by Stefan Zweig called Marie Antoinette: Portrait of an Average Woman, which apparently had a much more negative portrayal of her than Fraser’s book or this film), who kept falling back on the Hollywood clichés of the time whenever she had to have a big emotional moment.

Her Louis XVI is Jason Schwartzman, Sofia Coppola’s cousin (his mom, Talia Shire, is Francis Ford Coppola’s sister), who’s good at conveying the rather befuddled nature of the character (though Robert Morley in the MGM version was even better; as Charles pointed out, Morley’s overacting was more effective than Schwartzman’s underacting, and judging from the surviving paintings, the real Louis XVI looked a good deal more like Morley than Schwartzman), a guy who just wants to be left alone to hunt and play with locks and couldn’t care less about running the country. He also has an ultra-low sex drive — though they eventually had four children, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were sexless for the first 7 ½ years of their marriage, and one gets the impression from this film that neither of them even knew very much about sex. One thing Sofia’s script does is reproduce Fraser’s depiction of the acute interest the rest of the court took in whether Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were getting it on because it was a major political concern that there be an heir to the French throne — a male heir because France, unlike Britain, did not allow women to rule (when their first child is born and it’s a daughter, whom Marie Antoinette names Maria Theresa, after her mother, the sense of disappointment from just about everyone around her is palpable). Their bed is in a preposterous room in which virtually the entire court got to watch as they made preparations to go to sleep, and the only concession to privacy was that the bed was ringed by a curtain (sort of like a modern-day hospital room) which they could draw once it was time for lights-out. Marie Antoinette keeps getting anxious letters from her mom saying that the entire alliance between France and Austria depends on her getting her husband interested in having sex with her so they can produce an heir to the French throne, and given that Marie Antoinette was just 14 when she was shipped off from Austria to France (and handed over in a humiliating ceremony in which she had to be stripped naked to cross the border so she would not carry anything Austrian with her — she was re-dressed in French clothes once she crossed the line and wasn’t even allowed to bring her pet dog with her; instead she was told, “You can have all the French dogs you want” — later she learned that at the French court she was not allowed to dress herself; there was a separate servant assigned to each article of her clothing and they all had to be put on in the proper sequence, and if one of the servants was late for work that day she just had to wait, half-dressed, until the servant arrived and the proper sequence could resume; both of these situations were vividly described in Fraser’s book and, of course, Sofia Coppola could hardly resist putting Kirsten Dunst through these scenes!), she didn’t have the slightest idea of how to get a man interested in her physically. (Fraser’s book quotes a document of the period in which a doctor who’d examined Louis XVI wrote a detailed analysis of his attempts to have sex and what was going wrong with them.)

Getting back to casting, some of Sofia’s choices were absolutely brilliant, including Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa (it turns out Marianne Faithfull was actually part of a long-standing aristocratic family herself; she’s a distant relative of the Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of the book Venus in Furs, whose taste for sexual humiliation was the source of the word “masochism”) and Rip Torn as Louis XV, and there’s a marvelous scene in which Sofia cuts between him randily pounding away at Madame Du Barry and the latest pathetic attempt of his son and his daughter-in-law to get it on. In a lot of ways Marie Antoinette is a great movie, but it could have been much better — if it had given us more of a sense of what was going on in the rest of the country as Marie Antoinette lived this utterly ridiculous caricature of a court lifestyle at Versailles; if Sofia Coppola had got rid of the rock songs and stuck to music of the period (all we hear of the music of Marie Antoinette’s time are two opera sequences with music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was actually active about a century before Marie Antoinette’s time; she deleted a sequence of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in drag, singing the aria “Che faró senza Euridice” from Orfeo ed Eurydice by Gluck, Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer, but even if she’d included it the scene would have been anachronistic because the version Marie Antoinette would have heard performed would have been Gluck’s French rewrite, Orphée, in which the aria would have been called “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” and would have been sung by a tenor, replacing the soprano castrato who had sung the part in the original Vienna version) and, most importantly, if she had carried the story through to its end and given Kirsten Dunst a chance to face the guillotine bravely and finally achieve in death some of the dignity that had eluded this preposterous character in life.

[1] — It’s quite possible Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in Versailles because, though the Coppola family is Italian in origin, they’ve had a long-standing connection with France: Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather, Piero Coppola, was a major symphony and opera conductor in Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s.