In Sofia Coppola's new movie, being a member of French nobility is sort of like going to the fanciest junior high school ever. The girls all make catty remarks as you walk down the hall. The boys are all bark and no bite, especially when it comes to sex. And there's always some snotty chaperone watching over you, preventing you from having any fun. What's a 14-year-old Austrian girl to do?
Crank up the New Order tunes, eat some bon-bons and go on a shoe-shopping spree, apparently. For her revisionist take on the Marie Antoinette story, Coppola has drenched a young, mostly American cast in the most opulent sets, costumes and scenery this side of Paris Hilton's penthouse, slapped an intentionally anachronistic new wave soundtrack on the whole thing and even thrown in a brief shot of some Converse Chuck Taylor hi-tops, just to keep things interesting.
It's all part of the writer-director's grand design to present a sort of sympathetic daydream about what life as the deposed Queen of France must've been like. The hard facts of Marie Antoinette's life are abandoned in favor of mood, atmosphere and style: The French Revolution is all but ignored, as are the screaming mobs, the starving peasants, the infamous "affair of the necklace" and the guillotine. This is a film about decadence and excess where the biggest price to be paid is leaving your bon-bons behind.
Coppola's wafer-thin stance is clear early on, when she presents the 14-year-old Austrian royal Marie (Kirsten Dunst) leaving home for the long trek to France, where she is arranged to be married to the meek, ineffectual prince Louis (Jason Schwartzman). Naive and pretty, the girl is unaccustomed to the ways of the royal court the nine-course meals, the 15-person dressing ceremonies every morning but when the impotent Louis refuses to lay a hand on her in bed, she quickly learns the joys of conspicuous consumption. Her lush insularity only worsens when she and Louis inherit the throne: Despite vague suggestions to, say, quit buying diamonds or stop funding the American Revolution, the young royal "blunderers" dig their own grave as the rest of France falls into ruin.
Only you don't see the ruin. Coppola has chosen only the aspects of this story that suit her needs, the same way you would pick out color swatches when buying a new sofa. The first half of the film entertains the possibility of catty melodrama, with Marie snubbing Louis' father's mistress (a deliciously uncouth Asia Argento) and various talented comedic actresses (Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson) gossiping and flitting about the royal palace at Versailles. But many of these characters fall by the wayside as Marie attends ever more fabulous balls and ceremonies. At this point, Coppola as if realizing a historical movie needed to be "serious" gets even moodier and more ponderous with her direction, loading up the film with shots of Marie flouncing her head down on silk pillows and sighing like Claire Danes in My So-Called Life.
Her actors adrift in a sea of doilies, Coppola lets the film's costumes do most of the work for her. Luckily, they're some of the most lavish, expressive threads to be put on the big screen in decades. Working with master designer Milena Canonero with help from Manholo Blahnik, the shoe designer Sex and the City made famous the director is able to suggest what her script can't. When Marie is flush with sexual excitement, she's dressed in reds and pinks from head to toe. When the movie attempts to take on darker shadings, it does so literally, in shades of plum, black and burgundy.
Those who hoped that Coppola would follow up Lost in Translation by shaking up the dusty old genre of the period picture will be disappointed: Despite the modern music, this is a fairly conventional film. If you're charitable that is, if you fantasize about being invited to the most fantastic tea party ever you'll grant Marie Antoinette a whole lot of slack. Otherwise, you'll be as bored as the poor little rich girl at heart of it all.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.