Wednesday, 14 November 2007

DVD: Marie Antoinette

Lowdown: A feminine look at a history we all take for granted.
Going into Marie Antoinette the film, I had to admit I didn’t know much about the character. I knew she was the queen of France, I knew she said what she said about cakes, I knew how she died, but that’s it. And now comes this film that tries to give us its own version of this woman’s story, and I have to admit I don’t know how to accept it: Is what the film saying about Antoinette true? Is it one possible truth based on a small bank of evidence that managed to survive the years? Or is it totally fictitious? Given that I didn’t and still don’t know where the film lies, I chose to digest it as a film and not as a biography.
Marie Antoinette the film was directed by Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford’s daughter. As with her previous films that I have watched, Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, MA feels very laid back in the sense that nothing is pushed on the viewer; there is no spoon feeding the viewer here. Instead there’s just a collection of events taking place on the screen in front of you and you’re required to make whatever you want of it. In MA’s case, the events taking place on the screen tell us of a young Austrian princess, Marie Antoinette, who at a very young age is sent to marry the French crown prince in order to improve the political connections between the two kingdoms. As she arrives in France Antoinette has to face a world as foreign to her as Mars would seem to us (albeit with a breathable atmosphere). Quickly enough she finds herself trapped between having to produce a heir to the king in order to establish herself and having a husband of a prince who is rather reluctant to perform the acts required in order to generate such a heir.
As the film develops, we learn that Marie Antoinette is, first and foremost, a person. A person trapped in circumstances beyond her, a person with whims and weaknesses, and a person who can rise to the occasion from time to time. This may seem a bland message, but given the character’s historical reputation it is an important one, telling us not to take what we are being told for granted. The film goes further, actually telling us that Antoinette did not actually say that famous quote of hers; Coppola (Francis Ford this time, the film’s executive producer) repeats the point in the DVD’s supplementals, making me wonder how he knows what he claims to know. Regardless, the point is still the same: in this age of menacing terrorists across the seas that plot to kill us, what do we really know about them and about what it is that puts them in the situation they are in? Or do we only know what we are told?
My main problem with MA as a film is that it completely failed to captivate me and to get me involved as a viewer. More than with Sofia Coppola’s other two films, I was quite indifferent to any of the characters and never felt myself an external viewer. A lot of it is to do with Coppola’s laid back style, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with the things that are supposed to make the film work that just happen to be things that don’t “talk” to me. For a start, MA features a very feminine hero, something that is quite rare; the vast majority of films have male leads, something that as a male is very easy for me to get used to and take for granted. Second, the film’s most distinct attribute is its look, with everything looking so neat and so well arranged; again, a typically feminine way of doing things, which is fine and which should be applauded given the unjustified male dominance, but again – it doesn’t work on me. I was too ill conditioned, I guess.
On the positive side, the film was shot on location in France and the result is spectacular; when you see Antoinette walk up the stairs of the palace, you know that the real one actually walked those same stairs. I also thought that Kirstin Dunst has done an unexpectedly decent job in the main role.
Best scene: The scene in which Antoinette wakes up for her first post wedding morning only to have half of France around her in the bedroom is probably the scene mostly remembered, but I liked the scene where she crosses the border between Austria and France and has to let go of anything Austrian the most. It touched a chord and it really showed what this young girl in the film had to go through to satisfy political whims that would have been quite beyond her given her age at the time.
Picture quality: One of the main things about this film is its look, and one of the ways in which the look is established is through the color palette deployed in the film – the costumes, the backgrounds, etc. These tend to be in soft colors of the type that will commonly be described as “feminine”: pink and light blue, for example. As a result, the film has the potential to deliver a trip to the eyes, but it mostly fails to achieve that through noise and moderate color inconsistencies.
Sound quality: I like the sound design here. Not the most elaborate or detailed or well recorded one ever, to say the least, but what we have here is a soundtrack that often deliberately takes center stage. This is either done by varying sound levels or by playing rock/pop music in scenes where you'd expect the classical of classical music. A job well done; it’s good to see directors who value sound as a central element of their creation, because I surely agree with them. Woody Allen, eat your heart out.
Overall: Marie Antoinette is a good film that almost totally failed to captivate me. Grinding my teeth I will give it 3 out of 5 stars, although I cannot be said to have liked it that much.

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