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October 18-24, 2006

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'Marie Antoinette'

Photograph by Leigh Johnson
Shop till you drop: Kirsten Dunst turns the eve of the French Revolution into a shopping extravaganza in Sofia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette.'

Princess Diaries

Sofia Coppola's 'Marie Antoinette' stars the revolution without her

By Richard von Busack

YOU'VE HEARD of hair-dryer novels; now, observe a hair-dryer movie. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is so much like a magazine pictoral that it might be better to just gawk the Entertainment Weekly spread. One of the most interesting times in Western civilization percolates off-camera, while the queen of France anticipates today's divas by singing a bit, gardening a bit and mothering a bit. Coppola genuflects over Marie Antoinette's passive life, suggesting that as a clotheshorse and a trendsetter, she justified her existence. The film implies that no other path was possible for a bewildered foreign teenager at Versailles. In the background, we hear 1980s pop, as a way of injecting a rebelliousness that really wasn't her style. The Gang of Four's "Natural's Not in It" plays over the titles: the music of dedicated revolutionaries has just been used to outfit one of the most royalist movies for the last 50 years.

In 1770, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) arrives in the French frontier, promised in marriage to the heir to the French throne, Louis (an amusingly cast Jason Schwartzman). The boredom and gossip of Versailles appall her, and her husband has no idea how to consummate their marriage. Therefore, seven years will pass before the queen fulfills her destiny to foal heirs. In the meantime, she shops till she drops; a remix of Bow Wow Wow's version of "I Want Candy" backs up a Target commercial-worthy montage of champagne glasses, gambling chips and a queen's ransom in dainties from the royal patisserie. After a brief affair with a Swedish soldier, she goes back to playing milkmaid at the Petit Trianon, as minor characters wander in to announce that the treasury is bare and the natives are restless.

Maybe a critique lurks somewhere. When Marie pines for her lover, she envisions him in a scene that looks like the cover of Love's Flaming Itch. He is Fabio-like, aboard a charger, with cannons roaring on all sides. It is more likely that Coppola intended a sincerely romantic image, considering how gaga she goes over the sets and the clothes. The part is made for a star, rather than the down-to-earth Dunst. Maybe some long-memoried viewers will compare this historical travesty to Erich von Sternberg's brilliant The Scarlet Empress. But Dunst only looks slightly like Marlene Dietrich and doesn't display any kind of will to power. She's never been this banal.

Without a strong presence—like Bill Murray in Coppola's best film, Lost in Translation—this director customarily drifts like a shopper at a mall. Good actors are stuck in this chunk of toffee: Rip Torn's Louis XV (a French king from Paris, Texas) who gets in a good glance down Marie's dress. Asia Argento plays the debauched Madame du Barry, and I liked the murmured hiss of Judy Davis as some sort of protocol-enforcing comtesse; she sounded like a talking swan. Depressingly, many viewers will probably accept the film's argument that Marie Antoinette was a martyr, another candle in the wind, even though the film ends discreetly at the point the queen is escorted out of her palace. Especially ill-read members of the audience will be left to wonder what ever happened to this Versailles Barbie.

Movie Times Marie Antoinette (PG-13; 118 min.), directed and written by Sofia Coppola, photographed by Lance Accord and starring Kirsten Dunst, opens Oct. 20.

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