Thursday, February 21, 2008

Underrated, Underappreciated Movies, Day 1: Marie Antoinette

Welcome to the first post in what will (hopefully) be a series of underrated, underseen, underloved movies. I don't expect to change everyone's mind about the films I want to cover, but hopefully I can offer a new perspective on some of them. These are the kinds of movies that got unfairly dismissed for whatever reason and deserve another shot.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Marie Antoinette is the third film by daughter-director Sofia Coppola, and it is also her most ill-received. It started out inauspiciously when a few people at Cannes perceived it as "historically inaccurate" and booed it, which degenerated into sensationalized stories of crowd-wide hatred. The movie kind of snowballed from there until it finally hit the States, where it opened to a flimsy domestic box-office and mixed critical reception.

What Turned Them Away?

- The plot, or lack thereof. Marie Antoinette, as its title kind of obviously suggests, is a historical character study. (More on that later.) The film is very different in its narrative construction - Marie has no real character arc to speak of. The story is a collection of fragments from her personal life, touching on the highlights like her famed bitch fight with a royal prostitute and her sordid love affairs. It isn't really a movie in that way - it's like a chaptered retrospective of a tragic, naive figure. People claim it's style over substance, but it couldn't be farther from the truth. There is plenty of substance, but it's subtle, and the style masterfully expounds on that substance anyway.

- You don't get to see her beheaded. I'm sure a lot of people would have loved to see Kirsten Dunst's decapitated head rolling around the gallows of France, but Sofia Coppola's decision to leave it to the viewer had a lot of bloodthirsty viewers pissed off.

- Sofia Coppola herself. A lot of people thought she fucked up the third installment of the Godfather series. I mean, sure, she can't act, but why hold that against her in her behind-the-camera pursuits? The backlash grew especially venomous when Lost in Translation found critical and commercial success - people began to cry nepotism. The ill will was bound to explode at some time...

What Should Have Kept Them?

+ The visuals. Say what you will about her storytelling abilities, but it's undeniable that Sofia Coppola has inherited her father's talent for putting a stunning image on film. Between the lavishly-designed costumes, the flawless cinematography and the meticulous set design - surely aided by the fact that it was filmed in Versailles - Marie Antoinette is the kind of movie that leaves indelible images burned into your brain.

+ The sound. Some might not care for Coppola's jangly indie-rock "nouvelle vague" sensibilities, but there's a lot more to be appreciated on her soundtrack. She skillfully juxtaposes not only modern tunes against the historical backdrops of her film, but also makes sure to include several classical pieces as well. Between this and the distinct visual style, Marie Antoinette is a totally unique movie. If the vocal tunes aren't your thing, the instrumentals she selects are fantastic - haunting, simple tunes that fit the mood perfectly. People might like the movie's OST for The Cure and Bow Wow Wow, but Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Dustin O'Halloran's contributions to her score are the real standouts.

+ The character. As I briefly touched upon above, Marie Antoinette was a character of great complexity. The movie doesn't hit all of the points of her tragic life, but few movies could without being four hours long. What it instead offers is scenes, vignettes that tell us as much about the queen as possible in the two hour run time. She wasn't malicious in the slightest, but simply a sheltered teenager placed in a position of incredible power. What 16-year-old is expected to know how to rule a country? Of course she was bound to make mistakes - she is, after all, a teenager. And when she begins to have emotional problems, such as her unconsummated marriage and the political outcries of her foes, she uses luxury to bury them just as anyone her age would. In fixing the focus on Marie, rather than the political turmoil of the country, Sofia Coppola manages to keep the character sympathetic while highlighting her flaws and mistakes at the same time.

I wouldn't call Marie Antoinette a perfect movie. I think it's slow to get off the ground - the first twenty minutes aren't easy to sit through. But the rest is gravy...beautiful, sumptuous gravy. It's a tale of inherent contrast: the vagaries of a teenage girl tempered by an oppressive, dangerous governmental climate. For my money, that's the kind of contrast that creates substance, and doesn't deserve to be ignored.

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