It's history but not as we know it in Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola's frivolous, fun-filled attempt to make 18th century Versailles accessible to 21st century audiences.
Her version of Marie Antoinette is more Paris Hilton than Paris, France as we meet a shallow young woman whose world revolves around footwear, fashion and fabulous parties. If the hostile reception at the first press screening is anything to go by purists will treat it with regal disdain and reach for the comforting arms of an Eric Rohmer DVD. Those with a tolerance for froth could be more forgiving. It has a diverting, playful charm that does eventually wear out which makes it more of a tasty little bonbon or an amuse bouche rather than a satisfying meal.
Likely to appeal to those who have swooned over Baz Luhrmann films or enjoyed the sheer silliness of A Knight's Tale, Marie-Antoinette could just become the cinematic equivalent of this season's must have fashion accessory for a hip young crowd.
Based on a respected biography by Lady Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette represents a spirited assault on the tired cliches of the historical drama. Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is a thoroughly modern miss stifled by pomp and protocol when she is escorted to the court of Versailles and wed to the dauphin Louis (Jason Schwartzman). An innocent to the slaughter, she is thrust into the glare of public interest, vulnerable to gossip and uncertain whether anyone likes her for herself or because of her powerful connections.
The tale almost invites the viewer to assume there are strong personal connections in the material for the director who survived a baptism of fire acting in her father's The Godfather III.
The rituals of court are a subject of easy amusement and there are some pithy bon mots and juicy star turns along the way. Steve Coogan is the impeccably well mannered Ambassador Mercy, Judy Davis swans around looking as if there is a bad smell under her nose, Asia Argento is typically fierce as the vulgar Madame Du Barry, Rip Torn seems to be imitating Walter Matthau as Louis XV, James Lance is a hoot as celebrity hairdresser Leonard and Jason Schwartzman is sweetly endearing as a shy, fuddy duddy Louis who reserves his true passion for hunting and the history of locks and prefers a good night's sleep to intimacy with his wife.
Basically, Marie-Antoinette should be treated as an invitation to a party where there will be interesting people, dancing, fireworks, a little scandal and lots of gossip. It has a childlike quality as if everyone had been invited to raid a costume box, let their hair down and play pretend games.
Cinematographer Lance Acord gets the most out of the fantastic locations and golden sunsets but Coppola undermines any sense of tradition that may impose with scenes that unfold to a rock soundtrack or a plaintive version of Fools Rush In. It could be viewed as a very long and very indulgent pop promo that will look fantastic on MTV and draw sighs of nostalgia from those who were devoted to Adam and the Ants in the 1980s.
Kirsten Dunst is the physical embodiment of the film's intentions. She has an exquisite alabaster beauty that screams period drama and an attitude that is entirely contemporary. After endless minutes freezing in a drafty bedchamber as members of the entourage compete for the privilege of dressing her, she merely drawls: 'this is ridiculous' and any pomposity crumbles. She may have an appetite for conspicuous consumption and little lap dogs but she is also incredibly level-headed which makes you wonder why she wouldn't have been aware of the forces gathering against the monarchy.
The French Revolution is as much of a surprise to her as it is to us. Easy on the eye and undemanding, Marie Antoinette may suffer because of the high expectations of what Sofia Coppola would do after Lost In Translation. The Virgin Suicides In Versailles is probably not what people had in mind. Marie Antoinette may have too much cake and not enough revolution but for the most part it is fun. Just leave your prejudices at the door.
based on a biography by Lady Antonia Fraser
Sony Pictures, outside French-speaking territories (Pathe) and Japan (Toho-Kushinsha)
Francis Ford Coppola