Marie Antoinette: The Epitome of Style-Over-Substance Filmmaking
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Almost fifteen years ago, Sofia Coppola directed her wildly ambitious period film, Marie Antoinette. Not long after this was made, Sofia Coppola directed one of my favorite movies of all time: Lost In Translation so naturally, my expectations for Marie Antoinette were very, very high. However I’m not sure I can blame most of this film’s faults strictly on perspective. If there’s one thing I’m sure about this movie it’s that there’s a lot to unpack here.
The first thing I noticed about Coppola's film is that it has got to be one of the most ambitious looking historical films I’ve seen since Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The production design is breathtaking and the scenery truly is something to behold. Every aspect about this film has a shrieking grandiosity that's impossible to ignore and it presents itself in everything from the production design to the costumes to the filmmaking in general. No matter what you think about it, there is no doubting that this is one of the most ambitious films to hit theaters in years and very few pictures since have been able to match its unbelievable scale. Unfortunately, Coppola's historical epic falls victim to the same trap that so many films like it have as well: being style over substance; borderline garish.
However, the production design is one of the only things I can praise about Coppola's Marie Antoinette because it doesn't take long into the runtime before the film's flaws begin to rear their ugly heads. Although this film is visually stunning, where it fails is in the story. It takes an excruciatingly long time for this movie to gain any sort of traction and the plot is incredibly vague. Once you get past the luxurious atmosphere the film has created, you’ll be left with barely any plot to focus on. When I was done marveling at Milena Canonero's costumes and pretty scenery I found myself thinking “wait what is this movie about again?” In many ways, Marie Antoinette reminds me of a similar historical epic and that is Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. From the story to the spectacle, the two films actually have the same costume designer as well. Much like Coppola's film, Kubrick's Barry Lyndon follows the life of a man who, over time, goes from an average person to the height of European aristocracy. Aside from a few key differences they're both very, very similar films. Unlike Marie Antoinette, Barry Lyndon is a much more fleshed-out movie in terms of plot and casting. Despite Kubrick's film clocking in at just over three hours in length, Marie Antoinette somehow feels... longer and hat's due to the difference in how both films utilize their runtime. The biggest problem with Coppola's movie is the story or in this case, lack thereof, as the movie consists of mainly vague scenes showing the lavish lifestyle that the titular character experienced. Athough there is a lot to learn from Marie Antoinette's real life story, this film feels unusually vapid. It would be like if Miloš Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest sacrificed its social commentary for cheap jokes about mental illness. The pacing of this movie feels absolutely glacial at times and I think it's reasonable to say that the film simply overstays its welcome.
Another underwhelming aspect of this film is sadly, the performances. Plenty of historical roles have laid way brilliant performances such as Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison and even Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin. And with a character like Queen Marie Antoinette it's reasonable to think that this role would garner a performance as iconic as the subject herself. However, that's just simply not the case. None of the performances stick out in this film, not even Kirsten Dunst in the title role. Although, there is one performance worthy of note and that is Jason Schwartzman. Unfortunately, it is for all the wrong reasons. Schwartzman was cast in the role of King Louis XVI and if you've seen any other one of his movies, you're probably really confused as to how that happened. Absolutely nothing about his performance resembles Louis XVI. There's simply no other way to put it, it's really hard to picture the same actor who played Max Fischer as the King of France. The casting choice is so bizarre I can only imagine that during production, Coppola found out they were crunched for time so she called Schwartzman on the phone and said: "hey cousin, want to be in a movie?"
Something I often see this film get praised on is its music. In fact, the soundtrack is featured at #36 on Pitchfork's "5o Best Movie Soundtracks of All Time" list and Empire Magazine has given the album a score of 5/5. These accolades continue to baffle me to this day. The soundtrack includes artists such as The Strokes, Siouxsie and the Banshees, New Order, The Cure and even Aphex Twin. A good party playlist for sure but this just does not fit the tone of the film in the slightest. One scene shows the Queen sitting lavishly in her castle which is interrupted by the garage rock vocals of Julian Casablancas. And as much as I love The Strokes...who thought that was a good idea? My best estimate is that Coppola and composer Dustin O'Halloran were trying to replicate the style of Baz Luhrmann who often incorporates modern pop music into his period pieces. This filmmaking style tends to either work or fail miserably and while it seems like they were trying to duplicate the bombastic energy of Moulin Rouge, it ends up feeling more like the mismatched desperate nature of Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby.
Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette has so much production value I don’t think I could ever confidently label this a bad movie. However, one thing for sure is that this could’ve been so much better if given a proper story. For the time being, I will be eagerly waiting until Sofia Coppola produces her next Lost In Translation.