“Marie Antoinette”: First Impressions

I was asked for my thoughts on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette this week, and realized that I haven’t posted any remarks about the film at all.

First of all… I loved it. So far, all of the negative reviews I’ve read have made it very clear that the reviewers were interested in something else entirely… a traditional historical epic, or something more exciting and dramatic and suspenseful.
Those that loved it are busy discussing what Coppola has done: She’s crafted something like a long poem made of images, focusing on the insulated, isolated experience of a girl whose life is almost entirely decided for her by other people.
It’s not action-packed and exciting, because Antoinette’s life probably wasn’t. It’s not full of insight and perspective on the politics and problems in French culture at the time because Antoinette was probably quite distracted by other things. Coppola is, as always, intrigued by a character living in a state of suspension, and thus she frames her film without portraying Antoinette’s famous exit. The guillotine would have distracted us from the point of the movie.
Some of her most subtle flourishes prove that less is, indeed, more. When we see a family portrait, with Antoinette surrounded by her children, and then see the portrait replaced, with one of the children suddenly missing, the impact of the news is even greater than it would have been if these events had been dramatized in detail.

Living alone in a crowd, like the heroines of Coppola’s previous films (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation), Antoinette can hardly be blamed for becoming rather frivolous and caught up in the pleasures offered her. She has little or no contact with the outside world, and thus cannot fathom the experiences of the peasants, or the politics of her Austrian family and her new French community. In other words… this film, like Lost in Translation, is probably as much about Sofia Coppola, and her life born into privilege and luxury, as it is about Marie Antoinette.

And by filling the movie with musical references to present-day pop culture, Coppola opens up the film as a timeless tale of superficiality, opulence, alienation, and loneliness.
Kristen Dunst gives her finest performance since Interview with a Vampire, saying a lot while saying very little at all. And in an inspired bit of casting, Coppola gives us Jason Schwartzman as Antoinette’s naive and preoccupied husband. And… what’s this?… Danny Huston in yet another movie this year, making the most of a brief appearance. I love this guy more and more with each role.
The most insightful review of the film I’ve read so far was written by Brett McCracken, and I heartily agree with him on every point. While Brett’s already rated it in his Top Ten, I don’t know that I’ll go so far, simply because I felt that Coppola had made most of her quiet observations by halfway through the film, and it felt a bit long, whereas The New World… a similarly subtle and image-focused film… continued to introduce new questions and explore them even in the final minutes.
But I still think that Marie Antoinette *is* one of the most beautiful and poignant works of art I’ve seen this year, and as such will probably remain misunderstood.
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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has two passions: writing fiction, and celebrating art — music, cinema, photography, literature — through writing and teaching. He is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” — Through a Screen Darkly. And his four-novel fantasy series, The Auralia Thread, which begins with Auralia's Colors, was published by Random House. He speaks at universities and conferences around the world about understanding art through eyes of faith. He is earning his MFA in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University, where he has worked for 11 years as an editor, writer, and communications project manager. His work has been recognized in The New Yorker, TIME, The Seattle Times, IMAGE, Ravi Zacharias International — and Christianity Today, where he served as a film journalist for more than a decade. He recently began a weekly column called "Listening Closer" for Christ and Pop Culture.

  • Adam

    I think we can be confident that George Lucas does not know what he is doing.

  • FearScene

    I really look forward to seeing what he does with The Mist — I loved what he did with Shawshank Redemption.

    As far as the Indy script, I sure hope George Lucas knows what he’s doing. The first three Indy movies are some of my favorite movies of all time and I hope he doesn’t get stubborn and ruin the fourth and probably final entry in the series.

  • Jason

    George Lucas didn’t like the script! Ha! That’s mildly amusing.

  • Joseph

    It’s nice seeing someone speak out against George Lucas as well. I love the guy, but he just can’t seem to understand a good script.

  • Phillip

    So good to hear a voice from Hollywood speak out against the “torture-porn” (and the fact that he use THOSE WORDS!) genre. Very refreshing.

    And its not hard for me to imagine George Lucas being stubborn.

  • David

    how interesting; i agree completely with your analysis of the film, and yet disagree with the ultimate verdict. i was largely disappointed by marie antoinette because although its portrait of the inner life was just as deft and elegant as sofia coppola’s previous films, it seemed to me that while what her previous films had to say was incisive, marie antoinette was merely petulant.

    it was as if sofia coppola had painted an extremely unflattering portrait of herself in the hope that people would see it and realize they’d treated her badly. i left the theater wishing that she’d resolved to face the bitter consequences of celebrity with as much bravery and dignity as her marie antoinette.

    and maybe that’s the point: that the unwashed masses will never understand the suffering of the rich and famous, that we make them monsters and then blame them for it, and then delight in their downfall.

    that may be so. but if it is, marie antoinette only succeeds in eliciting pity which is only a half-step away from scorn. and i suspect that was not the intended result.


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