Pampered princess, poor little rich girl, misused celebrity, lonely bubblehead, underappreciated trendsetter who misses her subscription to the 18th-century equivalent of TEEN PEOPLE — the adolescent queen envisioned by writer-director Sofia Coppola in Marie Antoinette is, at one time or other, all of these lost clotheshorses. And since this is Ms. Coppola we’re talking about, stylish and soft-spoken Godfather royalty from the Hollywood kingdom herself, it’s tempting to read autobiographical identification into the filmmaker’s madly chic, tauntingly shallow biopic, set during the young queen’s married life. Following Lost in Translation (in which a lonely, effortlessly hip girl rattled around Japan), here’s Coppola’s Lost in Versailles. In this rarefied universe, the privileged go shopping while, unseen and unheard until the very end when they storm the palace, the less style-conscious masses apparently get by on their own.
It’s tempting to search for autobiography, yes, but too easy: This yummy-looking, artfully personal historical fantasia, borne on currents of melancholy and languor and rocking out to a divine soundtrack of 1980s New Romantic pop music (plenty of the Cure, Bow Wow Wow, and Adam Ant), is the work of a mature filmmaker who has identified and developed a new cinematic vocabulary to describe a new breed of post-postpostfeminist woman. And that contemporary creature is also of the artist’s own invention.
Call that girl?Kirsten Dunst, a vision of bewildered loveliness as the 14-year-old Marie of Austria, betrothed, in a political deal, to the even more bewildered 15-year-old future Louis XVI of France, played by Jason Schwartzman. (The marriage was famously unconsummated for seven years due to the child king’s withering lack of sexual know-how.) With her winning touch of girlfriend-of-Spider-Man resilience and the easy, modern way she wears her formidable ball gowns, Dunst embodies the teen girl of today and of more than 200 years ago. And in returning to the star of her first feature, The Virgin Suicides, as muse, the filmmaker wisely lets Dunst set the movie’s tone of voluptuous lostness.
Marie Antoinette uses Antonia Fraser’s marvelous 2001 biography as a reference, but Coppola’s movie views the world through the young queen’s eyes. And eventually, that narrow POV loses focus and veers toward distractedness as the seriousness of the brewing revolution becomes clearer. Instead, friendless in an adopted country strangled by its own demands of etiquette (Judy Davis is a hoot as the worst of the sticklers, the Comtesse de Noailles) and unable to arouse her husband, Marie turns to luxury as solace — cakes, jewels, parties, shoes. Was she a flibbertigibbet, a casualty of gossip and mean press coverage, a Princess Diana before her time? Coppola’s stranded royal suggests that at heart, Marie Antoinette was just a simple girl who wanted to have fun, and got her head handed to her.