Marie Antoinette (12A)

Care for ein Kirstendunst?
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The Independent Culture

In Cannes this year, where Marie Antoinette was loudly barracked, one French review ran under the headline "Pauvre petite fashion victim". I don't know whether it meant the French queen or director Sofia Coppola - it could have been both, considering how many critics conflated the two, dismissing the film as a rich girl's fantasy about a rich girl. Certainly, you could read Marie Antoinette as obliquely autobiographical: watching the young Dauphine (Kirsten Dunst) arriving at Versailles and running the gauntlet of obsequious-contemptuous moues from the French court, you might have been seeing Coppola's anxiety at the prospect of mounting the steps of the Cannes Palais. Five months on, false expectations laid aside, you can see the film for what it is: an ambitious, affecting, truly distinctive piece of work, albeit one that will tell you more about 1780s footwear than about the causes and effects of the French Revolution.

Some detractors complained that the film wasn't a serious historical drama; others were disappointed it was a more traditional heritage outing than anticipated, rather than the radical genre-buster promised by the chic cast and a soundtrack mixing Rameau with Eighties rock and modern electronica. In fact, with its luscious wardrobe designed by Milena Canonero, this is a costume drama that concerns itself far more seriously with costume than most. It would make a perfect double-bill with Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (which I'd guess Coppola and her cinematographer Lance Acord have studied closely), but it would also go down a treat with The Devil Wears Prada.

Coppola's script, based on Antonia Fraser's biography, follows the goddess of conspicuous consumption through a series of tableau-like episodes: it starts with the Austrian princess leaving her homeland for France, ritually shedding her clothes and pet pug at the border; follows her through her conjugal frustrations with Louis XVI (played as a stiff nebbish by Jason Schwartzman); her orgies of spendthrift hedonism (a montage of shoes and pastry to Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy") and affair with the Swedish count Fersen; and finally her departure for the (not shown) guillotine.

If you expect informative historical drama, Marie Antoinette will baffle and frustrate: the Revolution figures as little more than noises off, the mob only a congregation of torch-bearing shadows. Yet it makes sense that the film alludes little to politics, for this is the story of a social class sealed in a gilded bubble, barely conscious of what lies outside. In that sense, Coppola has made a consummate zeitgeist film: you can see it as depicting the pampered obliviousness of a Paris Hilton, or the unreal, objectifying process by which a young woman becomes a star (look what's happened to Scarlett Johansson since she was a mere mortal in Coppola's Lost in Translation).

This Versailles is a dizzyingly cosmopolitan place, peopled by actors American, British, Australian, Italian, even French: among them, Rip Torn, Shirley Henderson, Judy Davis and Asia Argento, flamboyantly grubby as court slapper Madame du Barry. With its shamelessly anachronistic dialogue ( "I love your hair! What's going on there?" "Everything!") and a costume ball set to Siouxsie and the Banshees, you might expect a lush folly in the Moulin Rouge bracket. But what's surprising is the overall lyricism and melancholy. The early scenes especially are haunting and gauzy, following the disjointed experience of a young woman obliged to leave her world for one in which she's a total stranger, a world that greets her with both reverence and contempt while transforming her from person into symbol (Coppola surely also has a more recent ill-fated princess in mind).

On Marie's first exploration of Versailles, attended by a cortège of dazed children, the faintest clink of a chandelier makes it seem she's walking in a dream. There are other subtle effects of detachment in the soundtrack: when we first glimpse young Louis chatting with courtiers in the forest, their voices are mixed as if miles away. This approach to sound echoes the casual, distracted quality of vintage Robert Altman: in the dinner scenes, the catty bons mots aren't flagged up but left to drift over the table. That Coppola is so intrigued by stillness, uneventfulness, dead time, makes this a far more European film than the crass American confection it has been painted as: there's a flavour of Visconti and Ophuls.

How much you care for the film may ultimately depend on your feelings about Kirsten Dunst: I admit I'm pitifully susceptible, but even viewed objectively, she has an extraordinary presence here. She comes across as more alive, more at ease, more likeable than any young Hollywood actress. When Marie adopts a ludicrous new haystack of coiffure, Dunst plays her as not posing regally but as donning fancy dress, relishing the absurdity. But we also get glimpses of a vulnerable, shattered sensibility. In one of Marie's disconsolate moments, Dunst looks in the mirror and her breast gently heaves: it's an extraordinarily expressive heave, and somehow a perfectly 18th-century heave, and that is acting.

A laconic, sombre closing shot gives us a room in Versailles, its finery trashed, a bird fluttering in the chaos. Marie Antoinette is an essay in the artistic genre of vanitas, a depiction of transient worldly folly. That shot is all the more effective for rhyming with the opening image of Marie on a chaise longue, amid an ocean of fancy patisserie. Perhaps it's a touch literal of Coppola to so eagerly pursue her heroine's unfortunate associations with cake, but she makes it work. (Her star even sounds like a Viennese pastry: would you care for ein Kirstendunst?) The film may resemble a gorgeous palace of profiteroles - but Coppola knows that such a thing is hollow inside, and that's the point of the film. Which, despite appearances, is considerably more than a fondant fancy.