Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette had me hooked before a single image hit the screen. The Lost in Translation director's lavish, ambitious quasi-traditional bio-pic of French teen queen and guillotined victim of the revolution, Marie Antoinette, opens with a black screen and slashing guitar chords. The song is "Natural's Not In It," a critique of capitalist consumption from Marxist punk band Gang of Four. Then a quick image flashes on the screen: Kirsten Dunst's Marie, prone on a chaise lounge, shoes being fitted by a servant, dipping one dainty finger in the icing of a large cake on the table next to her and having a taste.
This neat little dialectical snap shot serves multiple purposes. It acknowledges the "unnatural" economic disparities that provoked the French Revolution as well as the extreme insularity of Marie's privileged world. But it also gives the audience the glimpse of the Marie they expect to see almost as a wink: Okay, Coppola seems to be saying, here's the caricature. I'm making my own movie now.
This isn't the last time Coppola acknowledges the brutal indifference to outside suffering that was a part of Marie Antoinette's reality and that has come to define her mythology. There's a damning little scene toward the end of the movie when, informed of bread shortages throughout France, Marie responds not with the legendary "Let them eat cake!" (which later scholarship asserts she never actually said) but with a would-be helpful, crushingly naïve offer that her towhead toddler daughter can forgo diamonds.
But Coppola isn't primarily interested in making a class critique or in grappling with the revolution itself. Instead she's intent on making this a personal story told entirely from the perspective of Marie herself, who is sent from her native Austria at age 14 to wed France's Louis XVI in a kingdom-uniting union. The result is an achingly sympathetic portrait of one of history's more reviled figures that plays like Wong Kar-Wai and John Hughes collaborating on a costume drama, with '80s new wave bands such as New Order, the Cure, and Bow Wow Wow providing the soundtrack.
Coppola's Marie is an innocent plopped down in the strange, opulent but subtly vicious world of Versailles (the movie was filmed on location at the palace, a first) and forced to adapt. Dunst (engaging as always) is essentially a bored, isolated girl with nothing beyond her reach materially. What would any teenage girl do in such a situation? Shop. Marie cheers herself up with clothes and candy and pets and friends, and Coppola indulges this world's extravagance. She celebrates it in the same cinematic-sugar-rush way you'd expect from any teen movie, but those Gang of Four guitar chords still seem to be rattling around the frame, like peasants at the gate.