Sometimes a film is criticized more for what it isn’t than what it actually is. Marie Antoinette entered the film world with a rousing chorus of boos and jeers at this year’s Cannes film festival. It’s been battling off bad buzz ever since, and its reviews are decidedly mixed. Many of them seem to dwell on what’s missing: social commentary, historical context, and pretty much the entire French Revolution.
Of course, that is decidedly the point. Marie Antoinette is not Sofia Coppola’s critique of royalty or her attempt to enlighten viewers about French history (if that was the case, she probably would have cast French, wouldn’t she?). In fact, I’d in fact argue that this is barely Sofia Coppola’s film at all.
It is Marie Antoinette’s film.
Well that’s not entirely true. There are two things that Sophia Coppola arguably does as well or better than any other director working today: motion and music. As she proved with The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, Coppola can masterfully use the camera and a carefully-selected soundtrack to turn a simple walk, stroll, run or car ride into a sublime event. And Marie Antoinette is at its best and most entertaining when Sofia plays to the senses, letting the energy of the moment explode off the screen.
But in Marie Antoinette, Coppola turns her magic entirely over to Antoinette to use as she pleases. As such, when Antoinette is reveling in her queendom, we feel her exhilaration as the camera floats and the soundtrack soars (it’s a pretty spectacular soundtrack too). At the same time, when she is tired of the pageantry and routine of the royal court, we’re bored out of our mind too. This renders about half of the film a bit of a slog (in particular, the first 45 minutes, where the entire point seems to be to make us as tired of the stale court as Antoinette is). Coppola is so successful at removing her own point of view from the picture and replacing it with Antoinette’s that it actually renders the film, entertainment-wise, a hit-or-miss affair.
I don’t begrudge Coppola’s decision to excise the politics of the French Revolution; that was not the film she wanted to make. But towards the end of the film, when French society at large begins to cause waves within an insular royal court, we’re left as surprised as Antoinette as to why all of France has come to hate her. Yes, she spends the entirely movie living her frivolously extravagant lifestyle, but without any other points of view to compare it to, we leave the film why this charming young lady became the country’s villain – what did she ever do to them?
In this day and age, in order to navigate through the cultural torrent, we’ve all trained ourselves to be critical viewers, to look for biases and points of view and to always try and dig for other sides to the stories we’re presented with. Marie Antoinette is technically superb film, but because the point of view that we’re given in the film is so narrow, even viewers like myself who both appreciate the film and are intrigued by it will find it inconsistently enjoyable.
Watch: Marie Antoinette trailer: