It begins with a bright pink bang, jagged late ’70s punk chords and a graffiti Marie Antoinette slogan, splashed across the screen with scant regard for reverence or history. Or, it seems, the French, who were as impressed at Cannes by Sofia Coppola’s third film as they would be by a Starbucks on the Arc de Triomphe. Talk about missing the point. This is no biopic – it’s an ageless snapshot where accuracy takes a backseat to emotion; beautiful, longing, funny and achingly, achingly cool.
Yet, for all its considerable pomp, the first scene has a foot-shuffling emptiness reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Dunst’s then-14-year-old Archduchess Of Austria wandering around Vienna’s vast Schönbrunn. Playing with dogs, giggling, acting her age – it’s the happiest she’ll be for years. Because, once she’s whisked off to Versailles to marry Dauphin Louis- Auguste, it’s all whispered bitchiness, backstabbing and ceaseless pestering for the young couple to lose their cherries. As Schwartzman mutters when the pair are made King and Queen, “Lord help us, for we are far too young to rule.”
If Lost In Translation saw Scarlett Johansson as Coppola, rich lass alone in Tokyo while hubby heads off to work, Marie Antoinette has Franny’s girl helpless in pop’s mansion as various big shots and hangers-on wander through her home. Coppola was given permission to shoot in the halls of Versailles and Dunst – who charms throughout, smiling, tittering, breaking down – is beautifully framed, isolated among empty opulence and drifting from one daft custom (dressing) to another (eating). “This is ridiculous!” gasps Antoinette. “This, Madame, is Versailles,” comes the prim reply.
But this is a punk film, one to shun stuffy straitjackets much as its heroine did during her life. And it’s in her lavish parties and outrageous money-spending that the movie comes alive. From New Order’s ‘Ceremony’ at her 18th birthday bash, to the hangover come-down of Aphex Twin’s softer moments, the soundtrack’s perfect – fitting its subject as smartly as the equally anachronistic Converse trainers Coppola slips into the Queen’s enormous shoe-rack.
Such cheek, humour and beauty is only threatened during the film’s final 20 minutes as key historical moments are crammed into a blistering years-pass-in-moments onslaught. Births, deaths, the “Let them eat cake” line, revolting mobs... it’s an unnecessary timeline lesson in a film that could well have ended with Dunst running through the palace, The Strokes blaring out “I want to be forgotten”, fantasising over a dashing soldier she’s having an affair with. Marie Antoinette’s life may well have ended up a nightmare, but, here, Coppola mostly allows her to dream...
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Another mesmerising, elegant work from Coppola, misjudged at Cannes. You'll learn almost nothing, but lose yourself and be lavishly rewarded.