Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
It's Actually Really Good!! Is Everybody Else High??!!!
Is Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette an autobiographical film? Let us consider the similarities between Marie Antoinette and Sofia Coppola.
If you were a French peasant in the 18th century, chances are you had considered the agreeableness of the idea of beheading Marie Antoinette at some point or other. Born into incredible privilege, she spent her life worrying over how to spend the millions of dollars at her disposal to avoid boredom. So totally sheltered from the horrible concerns that 99.9% of the huddled masses had to man up and deal with on a daily basis, she couldn’t even conceive of the back-breaking labor and greedy forced extraction her treasure came from.
If you are an aspiring filmmaker in the early 21st century, chances are you’ve considered the agreeableness of the idea of beheading Sofia Coppola. Born to one of the most powerful filmmakers in the history of the world, she was given the reins of a movie-making empire at her whim, bypassing the backbreaking, humiliating work of being a personal assistant or gofer on whatever piece of crap schlock you could get a job on in Hollywood with no true hope of ever getting to make a movie yourself. Sheltered from the shameless exploitation of the young and the eager in Hollywood, and given access to some of the greatest technicians and designers in the world to work on her films, she can have no real idea the struggle working and middle class young adults face when cast out into the real world.
I just hope that an angry mob of out-of-work directors doesn’t storm the Coppola ranch in Northern California wine country and drag Sofia to the guillotine. Because, as much as I hate to say it, we’re going to miss out on some fantastic movies.
Marie Antoinette landed in theaters last fall with all the grace of a head plopping into a basket. Coming on the heels of her widely-acclaimed (and justly so) Lost in Translation, the backlash against her was inevitable. And the release plan for the film didn’t help. An American making a film about French history, set in Versailles itself, at a time when Americans are about as unpopular abroad as they’ve ever been, probably wasn’t destined to have a great reception in France. Nevertheless, that’s where it premiered…to rousing boos at the Cannes Film Festival. It is so common for films that are booed at Cannes to end up actually being fantastic that getting boos there might be the seal of quality. Still, not many people recognize that, and Marie Antoinette left the gate stumbling, and never truly recovered.
Critics damned the film with faint praise when they praised it at all. It came and went at the box office in a matter of weeks, and the smart, literate movie-going public never felt any urgency to see the film. There were lots of quibbles with it (e.g. the mishmash of accents amongst the actors), but the most common criticism of Marie Antoinette was the lack of historical perspective.
This, I argue, is its greatest artistic virtue.
Sofia Coppola does not make dumb movies. Even if she herself happens to be dumb (she is not), she is surrounded by so many world-class collaborators that it’s highly doubtful she could ever release a truly dumb movie. Firstly, of course, you’ve got Francis Ford Coppola, possibly the greatest filmmaker of all time, and a man who obviously dotes on his beautiful daughter, advising her. Then you’ve got her technicians and designers, people like Director of Photography Lance Accord, who, my film tech friends tell me (and my own eyes confirm it), rocks. With all this in mind, I urge all of America’s critics who dismissed this movie (and I know they’re reading right now) to at least consider the possibility that the lack of historical perspective in the movie was there by design.
Marie Antoinette is told from the perspective of, well, Marie Antoinette, and does not leave this perspective, even if this would help establish a wider panorama of 18th century France. Marie Antoinette is not portrayed as being wicked, or having one “character flaw” who’s genesis was in her childhood. She’s just a regular girl of average intelligence who grew up in incredible privilege and knows nothing else. She lives in a bubble–a beautiful bubble, to be sure. And from where I’m sitting, radical fidelity to character perspective is one of the hallmarks of really good storytelling, because it encapsulates human experience; there is no God’s Eye View in real life.
Sofia Coppola possesses a rare talent for an American filmmaker: subtlety. The camera does intrude on the reality she is presenting, it merely records it. There are long stretches of the film that are virtually dialogue-free, that just present everyday life at Versailles. I would argue that this is what makes Marie Antoinette a truly great period film: it doesn’t impose 2006 values onto what happened in 1766. The film is gorgeous, of course, but what really makes it is what moments Coppola singles out to show us. There’s very little melodrama here, there’s just lived life, and once in a while you get the sublime feeling that Coppola actually filmed the entirety of Marie’s life, and has given this footage to a very intelligent editor with a subtle sense of humor to pare down to two hours and give us the essence of what this life felt like from the inside.
There’s also the delicious parallels between Marie Antoinette and Sofia Carmina Coppola. Is this Coppola’s meditation on what it means to grow up as (basically) American royalty? If so, it’s incredibly clear-sighted and unshrill. She doesn’t damn herself, but neither does she exonerate herself (except in the one true misstep of the movie, where Marie, confronted by an unseen angry mob outside the palace doors, walks out onto the balcony, bows to them, and silences them for a moment–presumably with her grace and good manners. The moment feels all wrong, like Coppola missed the point about the source of the peasant’s resentment. A graceful curtsy would not slake the thirst for vengeance after a thousand years of serfdom.) She just says, “Hey, it’s not like you see on network TV. There are no villains and heroes. There’s just average, normal people who are basically born into the positions they’re in and fill them to the best of their average, normal capabilities.” Yeah, it’s totally unfair that some people are born multimillionaires while others are born with nothing, but that’s the system we have.
Still and all, it’s hard to feel bad for Coppola’s critical mistreatment over Marie Antoinette, just like it’s hard to feel bad for Marie Antoinette’s ultimate fate. Coppola will undoubtedly make another film again very soon, with little difficulty. Certainly none of the difficulty true average, normal people go through to try to get their own movies made. But I look forward to her next film despite the raging pit of bile she inspires in me upon sight, for two simple reasons:
Not only is she a very good filmmaker, let’s not forget she’s probably the only woman director in the world today who can make the films she wants. Men totally dominate the directing of film’s in this world, and the idea of what a truly feminine cinema can be is something hopefully we’ll get to see in our lifetime.