It’s difficult to separate oneself from and overcrowded and very same-y genre like the costume drama. The typical movie will be about the relationships of the rich, upper class, where one character wants to maintain the status quo regardless of personal preference, while the other wants to be happy, and will often have an affair in order for this dream to become a reality. Marie Antoinette has that, to an extent — especially in its second half — but that’s not really what defines it. That’s refreshing. Now, if what did define it was worth seeing, we’d have a great movie.
The story of Marie Antoinette (portrayed here by Kirsten Dunst with about as much energy and enthusiasm as a brick wall) is well-known. Most people will have learned or at least heard of her during grade school. In Europe, her story is probably even more prominently featured. It’s kind of refreshing to not need to know any of that in order to understand the movie. In fact, considering how many liberties director Sofia Coppola takes with the material, ignorance might actually be beneficial.
The basic idea here is that Marie is essentially sold to the Dauphin of France, Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman, looking overwhelmed by everything around him and showing about as much passion as Dunst), in order to produce an heir and hopefully sealing off an alliance between Austria and France. She’s not used to this life, and that’s something that takes up most of our time. She’s a fish out of water, so to speak, and as a result is lonely and unhappy with her new life.
That’s … just about the entirety of the first half of Marie Antoinette. We see the same type of dreary day over and over again, and you can really understand why she wouldn’t like this type of life. The film does a decent enough job making us care about Marie, although that will likely only be true of you’ve been in that type of position before, as the only hints you get from the movie are (1) Dunst looking dissatisfied and (2) the repetitive nature of the days Marie spends in this place.
Of course, her job is to provide Louis XVI with a child. He seems less than interested in having one. That means that everyone else has to constantly make comments about how Marie needs to do this, or the marriage could be annulled. Louis xVI’s lack of interest is the only villain of the film’s first half. Well, there’s also a woman named Madame du Barry (Asia Argento), Louis XV’s (Rip Torn) mistress, but she disappears early on and never does anything of interest. Not having a villain would be fine if these characters were interesting, but they’re not at all.
That’s the main reason that Marie Antoinette fails. There is such a lack of depth to these people that nothing matters when it comes to them. We want to see them grow, or at least have a reason to be on-screen for two hours, but for the majority of the film, this doesn’t happen. Sure, with about 40 minutes remaining, things start to get a little interesting — affairs and public disdain for Marie both come up — but there’s such a lack of content that it makes you wonder why most of this film was even shot.
I can kind of see what Coppola was going for here. She’s going for a very stylistic take on the uninteresting part of Marie Antoinette’s life. In doing so, the style can take center stage and not feel as if it’s impeding on actual characters. We can get lavish sets, music from the 21st century, dialogue that sounds like it was written for present-day teenagers — just without the profanity — and all the sweets in the world.
I’ll admit that it’s kind of enchanting, and that the idea that Marie feels so isolated does come across very strongly, but with such a lack of content, I’m not sure if Marie Antoinette is worth seeing. I mean, style can take you quite far, but once you get past that, there’s not a whole lot for the movie to do. It looks good, it has a lot of talent behind it, but the part of Marie’s life that was portrayed here was not something that should have been given the feature-length treatment — especially when in this case, “feature-length” means 127 minutes.
Both Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, good actors, are miscast. They don’t show any enthusiasm for the project. It works when they’re together — they’re not supposed to have chemistry together — but even when they’re doing what supposedly makes them happy, they look bored. The supporting cast is much better, but not enough to elevate the film. Rip Ton, Judy Davis, Rose Byrne and Steve Coogan are all given roles, and they seem much more comfortable in these costumes and on these sets.
Marie Antoinette isn’t a complete disaster, if only because its style almost makes it worth seeing, but due to the content being so dull and the main performances being so uninteresting, it’s really hard to recommend it. The loneliness of its lead is well-communicated, and the film looks fantastic — it’s also moderately funny, so there’s that, too — but I’m not sure how worthwhile a more “modern” take on the pre-Revolution story of Marie’s life truly is. It differentiates itself from other similar films, but its lack of interesting material makes it hard to recommend.