Monday 30 August 2021

Movie Review: Marie Antoinette (2006)

A historical drama, Marie Antoinette is a relatively sympathetic view of a young woman thriving in a foreign environment of detached excess.

It's 1770, and 14-year-old Maria Antonia (Kirsten Dunst) is selected by her mother Empress Maria-Theresa (Marianne Faithfull) of Austria to marry the Dauphin (heir apparent) of France (Jason Schwartzman). The arranged marriage is intended to strengthen relations between the two countries. Maria leaves her life behind, with Austrian diplomat Florimond Claude (Steve Coogan) and letters from her mother providing the only link back home. 

After the marriage, and despite Maria's best efforts, the Dauphin is uninterested in sex. Instead he is obsessed with fox hunting and lock mechanics. The failure to produce an heir increases the gossip and pressure on Maria. But along with a small group of friends she embarks on a life of parties, fashion, food and drink. Once the couple ascend to the throne as King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, her unconstrained behaviour further antagonizes the suffering public.

An exercise in eye-popping imagery, Marie Antoinette presents the French monarchy as a lavish institution governed by protocol, but also a limitless playground for a young queen-in-waiting. Director Sofia Coppola wrote the screenplay as an adaptation of the Antonia Fraser book, and deploys giggly playfulness, hallways full of audible gossip, and modern music to underline an outsider's invasion of a staid Versailles. The film bursts with colour, as costumes, ridiculous wigs, make-up, and designer foods command centre stage in an uninterrupted demonstration of privilege.

Once Marie settles in France, all events take place at the palace, apart from a few trips to the opera. The disassociation between monarchy and populace is total, Coppola disinterested in historical context and traditional narratives but successfully conveying a royal family existing in a blissful bubble sheltered by luxurious landscaping. When the revolution arrives at the doorstep of Louis XVI and his bride, it is an intrusion out of nowhere.

The isolation does limit the storytelling scope, and a large supporting cast featuring Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, and Danny Huston is mostly lost among all the chef creations, shoe designs, latest fabrics, and fashion statements. Jamie Dornan fares better as a romantic interest for the young queen after she is provided with a private dwelling and her relationship with the king dissipates into a friendship.

Earlier, Marie's patient attempts to sexually activate her husband provide the one source of dramatic tension. It's a prolonged and sometimes funny affair, the lack of activity in the royal bed creating a crisis in two countries. Marie Antoinette lived a decadently clueless life, but she did finally erect an essential union.

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