Why Many Critics Are Wrong About Marie Antoinette….And Why It Still Sucks

I don’t care that Sofia Coppola‘s Marie Antoinette presents us with yet another spin on the “poor little rich girl” theme, although it is a played out genre and hasn’t really been done well since Clueless. I also don’t care to analyze how much Ms. Coppola did or did not identify with Marie A., due to her privileged upbringing. Apparently many critics have a problem with that potential aspect. “Write what you know,” is an early lesson taught in class, so why anyone should criticize Ms. Coppola for that is beyond me. Also, I actually liked that this historical “drama” was set to 80’s New Wave music (I did, after all, come of age in the 80’s) and I was only mildly irked that the film completely trivializes the actual events of the times and nary a revolutionary is spotted in the film’s slightly more than 2-hour running time. After all, the film isn’t called The French Revolution and no one claimed that it was going to be a serious retelling of the times. All of these are things that have irked critics since the films bow at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it was reportedly greeted with a fair amount of boos mixed with a smattering of applause at its first press screening) and none of them are on my “Reasons Why I Hate Marie Antoinette” list. What is on said list, you might ask?

For one, this is a film by the same filmmaker who brought us the sublime Lost In Translation, a deeply thoughtful, nuanced, engaging and sensitive portrayal of not one, but two lost souls, abandoned in a thoroughly alien world. It was an empathic film, one with not only characters you might care about but a film infused with subtlety, both in the characters and the technical aspects of the film. It made me instantly eager to see her next project. Well, it turns out her next film is vapid, plodding, shallow, boring, repetitive, emotionally vacant & less than satisfying. To use a too cute trick my friends and I employed far too often in college, Marie Antoinette is engagingn’t. For that reason alone it pisses me off.
Oh, but there’s more! Ms. C seems to have completely lost (temporarily, one hopes) her ability to give us characters we care about. I don’t mean “like,” I mean give even half a shit about, even if it’s to watch them die. Some of the greatest characters in cinema have been those we despise, but these? Feh. Seriously…did any of you who watched this film really care about what happened to these people? And if so, for god’s sake, why? Now I know it’s going to look like I am going back on my not caring about the poor rich girl angle pledge, but really, I’m not. All I am saying is, Coppola didn’t invest them with any characteristics that I found redeeming or even interesting. Even a totally irredeemable psychopath like Hannibal Lecter is interesting and a whole sub-culture of Darth Vader fans sprung up long before he redeemed himself in Return of the Jedi. At least Kirsten Dunst’s Marie had a few bon mots and something going on under the hood, so’s to speak but Jason Schwartzman’s Louis XVI somnambulates through the film like Max Fisher on Thorazine, so much so that I wasn’t sure if Schwartzman was portraying the young king as un habituĂ© de la short bus.
In toto, I felt it was as superficial as superficial can be; to quote Dorothy Parker when she was describing Los Angeles, there is no there, there. This sentiment certainly applies to Ms. Coppola’s film, as it has no heart, no soul and no there. Not only that, it is so poorly constructed as to lead me to wonder if possibly Lost In Translation might have been a fluke. While I do understand the need to show the absurd trappings of the lives of the young royals, do we need to see them over and over and over… and over again? Seriously, just how many montages do we need of Marie and her gaggle of friends eating cakes and trying on Manolo Blahniks? I pretty much got the point at one. Again, how many two-shots do we need of Marie and her equally bored hubby eating breakfast (or lunch, dinner, brunch, high tea or midnight snacks)? Ditto the scenes of the pair waking in a bed that has clearly not seen the consummation of the marriage. Enough, already! We. Get. The. Fucking. Point!
Another bone I have to pick, structurally, is that it’s never clear how much time has elapsed from scene to scene. For example, the film spans 21 years of French history and there’s virtually no indication of the passing of time. Sure, she eventually bears children and they age, but she was at Versailles for eight years before giving birth to her first child and there’s virtually no indication of that time passing. I don’t presume to tell the filmmaker exactly how to indicate the passage of time, but many directors manage to do just that without resorting to words on screen.
As I’ve written previously, Marie Antoinette is not designed to be an authentic historical drama. It feels more like the director is trying to do John Hughes comes to Versailles and if so, she fails miserably. (It’s a failure even if that’s not her intent.) When I briefly discussed the film in Cannes for IFCTV.com I wrote, in part, that film fans would be better served renting “a double feature of [David] Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. You can have your bio pic and your fun, too and Jon Cryer’s Ducky is a hell of a lot more interesting to watch than Schwartzman’s nearly-catatonic Louis XVI.”
While it’s true that I haven’t seen the film since Cannes, and I am tempted to go to the NYFF press screening and press conference in 2 weeks, I’d rather be at the Woodstock Film Festival, which I’ve never attended and honestly, I doubt my opinions will change. When you get right down to it, Lost In Translation was too good a film for me to write Ms. Coppola off as a one trick pony. I still have faith in her (not that she likely gives a rat’s ass what I think)…after all, everyone directs a stinker, don’t they? To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Marie Antoinette is a tale…full of cakes and shoes, signifying nothing.

4 thoughts on “Why Many Critics Are Wrong About Marie Antoinette….And Why It Still Sucks”

  1. Tom, I thought that the manner in which I described the aspects of the film that I disliked was a perfectly acceptible way to express those feelings. The adjectives “vapid, plodding, shallow, boring, repetitive and emotionally vacant” ought to suffice, no? Oh I “got” the idea about a repetitious life at court, but where you see a build to a payoff, I see BORING and lazy filmmaking. Maybe you saw the repetition as a means to an end, i.e. the “payoff,” but I saw it as a lazy way to cram more minutes into an incredibly thin story.
    Also, who said I have predispositions against the characters? I loved Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and The Thin Man series, among many other films that have wealthy lead characters. That said, those characters were at least interesting. Not vapid and semi-conscious.
    Of course living in Versailles blinded them and that’s not what I didn’t like about the film. It is, as I see it, a completely empty, vacuous, pointless display of footwear and inane palace shenanigans.

  2. Ahem, Mr. Spin No need to call names. There seems to be no concrete evidence on the web as to who (Parker or Stein) said that about where (L.A. or Oakland). However, thanks for alerting me to the debate. I didn’t know there was one.

  3. A lucid explanation of how you feel, but not very much supporting detail from the film to explain WHY you feel that way. Schwartzman’s appropriately dimwitted Louis XVI aside, what didn’t you get about the idea of a routinized (i.e. repetitious) life at court? I understand that you don’t care about the lives of the wealthy characters, but its hardly fair to ascribe your predispositions to the film itself. The dinner scenes for example; obviously, seeing them repeated is a way to show the changes in Marie’s attitudes and self-confidence at court, but they all build to the film’s payoff; when Louis and Marie sit down to their usual meal as the revolution draws up to their front door, the moment shows how deeply the couple ended up feeling for one another, but was also a poignant reminder of how every insulated day at Versailles blinded them to and was a sort of inspiration for the doom that awaits them. For me, that is better than showing the passage of time, but instead brings poetic meaning to the moment and makes you re-evaluate all that came before.

    You sure you’re not only in it for the Tuna? 😉

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