One part lavishand revisionisthistory of one of France's most reviled monarchs, one part ode to classic teen-girl-alienation of the John Hughes variety, Marie Antoinette is a surprisingly sumptuous slice of cinematic cake.
The film follows the journey of the title character (Kirsten Dunst), the winsome, sweet-natured teenage archduchess of Austria, who is dispatched by her family in the late 1700s into a politically advantageous marriage to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), the future king of France. While the trappings of the royal palace at Versailles are as extravagant and glamorous as any traditional historical biopic, the heart of the film is Marie Antoinette's smaller, more emotional world, as she struggles to fit in with the puzzling customs and often-stern judgment of a foreign court. She must also fulfill her duty to her own nationnamely, producing an heir to safeguard their political status, a task that proves increasingly frustrating as she romances her maddeningly reticent new husband. Much like any modern young woman in our era of airhead heiresses, she initially soothes her angst by indulging in excessive shopping sprees, wild parties and flirtations with a hunky war hero. But she also eases into her role on the throne, only to find that her starving, angry peasant subjects have taken a harsh view of the gossip surrounding her profligate behavior as they mount the French Revolution.
As a child actress who worked steadily into her teens and early twenties, Dunst has always been a fresh, sunny presence on screen in popcorn films like Bring It On, but who could also reveal an ability to access darker corners, as she did in her debut performance in Interview with the Vampire and in Sofia Coppola's directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. But after her breakthrough role in 2002's Spider-Man, most of Dunst's subsequent efforts seem to have be chosen more to build her Hollywood stardom than challenge her acting skills and, perhaps unchallenged, she delivers performances more competent than compelling. Marie Antoinette is a welcome return to a more complicated and conflicted role, and she rises to the challenge admirably with her most appealing and most affecting turn to date. Utterly capturing the queen's evolution from naïf to sophisticate, gaining wisdom and maturity from her youthful frustrations and overindulgences, Dunst makes Marie's plight utterly relatable and imbues virtually every scene of the film with a watchability that outdoes even the luxe production design.
In only her thirdand most ambitiousfilm, writer-director Sofia Coppola continues on her hot streak. Already one of the most atmospheric and subtle helmers working in Hollywood, she not only marries her modern, dreamlike style to the opulent visuals of a historical drama, she effectively redefines Marie Antoinette in a way that any alienated, over-her-head teen of today could appreciate, while also showing just why the population at large might have considered her a monster. As Coppola is the quiet introspective daughter of a revered, famously over-the-top filmmaker, she, too, was thrust into a sophisticated world at an early age and was, with her much-panned acting turn in The Godfather, Part III, certainly misunderstood by the public, if not reviled. One is tempted to think a certain reliability applies to her success with her story. But her assured skills as a filmmaker are what really make Marie soareven her experimental touches, such as the use of anachronistic music on the soundtrack (the Strokes, Bow Wow Wow, New Order and others appear alongside Vivaldi). It make perfect sense in context, the kind of tunes a disaffected adolescent might play in her bedroom while wondering why no one understands them. That's just the icing; the rest of Marie's delectable cake is well worth eating.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.