Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Marie Antoinette

Marie AntoinetteIn 1975, the late Stanley Kubrick released his most painterly and sumptuous film, Barry Lyndon, based on the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray, about a charismatic but indolent young man who marries into 18th century English society. Though the novel was written as a social satire, Kubrick's screenplay emphasized what he saw as the latent elements of classical tragedy. Ryan O'Neal was perfectly cast as Barry Lyndon.

With Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola has done something very similar.

The Virgin SuicidesMuch as I loved The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, I was prepared to loathe Marie Antoinette on account of the unlikely casting of Kirsten Dunst (Spiderman) and Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) in the roles of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. The sly genius of Coppola's film is that I ended up liking it for precisely the reasons I expected not to. If celebrity is the new royalty, Hollywood is surely its Versailles, and the casting of privileged wunderkinds Dunst and Schwartzman, with their flat California accents, communicates the tragic cluelessness of the historical Marie and Louis far more eloquently than the postured foppery of a Merchant-Ivory or Masterpiece Theatre production. 

Lost in TranslationInstead of hating the film, I found it surprisingly moving. Dunst does a creditable job as the vacuous but sweet-natured teen who was woefully ill-equipped to be the wife of a ruling monarch, yet matured considerably in later years. That history was uncharitable toward Marie had less to do with her actual failings than the toxic and unrelenting smear campaign that was conducted against her from the moment she set foot in France. It is thought that she eventually would have been remembered as a compassionate and responsible queen had she not had her head snicked off. All historians agree that she showed enormous grace and courage, even in the face of her own impending death on the guillotine.

Spun (Unrated Version)The most preposterous piece of casting aside from Dunst is Jason Schwartzman as Louis. What was Coppola thinking?, I thought. How could an audience be expected to accept Rushmore's obnoxious nebbish, or Spun's nail-biting crank-addict as the reluctant king and bed-shy husband, Louis XVI? I expected to cringe, yet something interesting happened. Like Louis himself, Schwartzman seemed to grow into his role as events unfolded, and by the end of he story he achieves a kind of modest nobility. He never comes off as remotely kingly, but neither did the real Louis, whom history regards as a kind but ineffectual ruler.

The cumulative effect of Dunst and Schwartzman's performances is that they imbue these ostensibly remote figures with a humanity that is rarely seen in historical epics. Coppola's message is that underneath the powdered wigs and brocaded finery are real people, weak and vulnerable as the rest of us.

To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie AntoinetteMy only puzzlement has to do with the script's implied explanation for Louis' apparent romantic disinterest in his young wife. In one scene, a secondary character makes the offhanded remark that Louis prefers to spend time with his stableboys, the implication of which is that Louis is a homosexual. The truth is less salacious but more complex. By most reputable accounts, Louis was a virgin when he married Marie. Historical evidence suggests that he suffered from a minor genital deformity that was a source of personal embarrassment to him. By extraordinary coincidence, Marie apparently suffered from a rare medical condition discretely described as 'narrow passage,' which made it painful for her to have intercourse. Despite the biological obstacles, Louis and Marie eventually consummated their marriage and had several children. They were, by all accounts, a loving and devoted family.

One of the most telling and poignant moments in the film relates an actual exchange that reportedly occurred during Louis' coronation as king following the death of his father. As the crown was placed on his head, Louis glanced at Marie and said, 'Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign.' 

Guillotine: Its Legend and LoreOne of the many tragedies of the French Revolution was the eventual execution of Louis and Marie, two reasonably decent people who weren't particularly shrewd or suited to public life, but who had had the bad luck to have been born into the aristocracy at the worst possible time in French history, and who were ultimately the victims of events beyond their understanding. It's worth noting that Louis was a huge supporter of the American Revolution. We couldn't have won the war without his financial help, the supreme irony of which is that it nearly bankrupted the French treasury and was one of the contributing causes of the French Revolution--and Louis and Marie's subsequent execution. Coppola wisely chooses not to depict the sad particulars of their incarceration and death.

Barry LyndonLance Alcord's cinematography is dazzling, and the set pieces at Versailles are breathtaking. This is Sofia Coppola's most lyrical and visually stunning film. Truly, it is her Barry Lyndon.

I suspect Kubrick himself would approve of the comparison.

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