"Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness."

Film After the brilliance of both The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, I was salivating at the prospect of director Sophia Coppola tackling the life of the ultimate corset wearer Marie Antoinette. It's a shame then that despite all of the lavish period detail, experimental casting and post-modern attitude to music, the film is ultimately a confusing and disappointing experience.

The positive first: it really is a sumptuous looking film, not a shot throughout that couldn't be framed and hung in a gallery, as good as any of the Heritage films that the French themselves are famous for, not a vista ignored, the halls of Versailles given the respect they deserve. Lighting is sensitively handled too, not quite as dark as the candle lights of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (surely one of Coppola's influences), but perfectly natural, especially at the very end when only the fires of the masses gathered at the walls illuminate the house.

Music too is a perfect accompaniment, with a soundscape that is never intrusive, never jars with the setting flipping from melody to moody rhythms. The much hyped anachronistic inclusion of pop music, from Bow Wow Wow to Adam & The Ants, isn't anything new, but truly works well, even if (sometimes) it recalls New Romantic pop promos, which were fabulous at the time but ?

Dunst is a marvel; granted to an extent she's merely transferring some of the valley girl shtick from her previous roles, but she has that rare quality of allowing very tiny, very telling micro emotions to lap across the edges of her face providing a depth of characterization not always apparent in the dialogue. Jason Schwartzman's Louis XVI is suitably enigmatic, but the real stars are Asia Argento as Madame du Barry and Steve Coogan as Ambassador Mercy. The former steals every scene that she's in, her generous performance as the King's consort married to costumes in rich primary colours against the pastels of the surrounding walls and courtiers. Coogan is for once warm, and without his tongue in his cheek, presenting credibly and with dignity a man that could have been the source of parody.

Coppola has decided to present Antoinette's life as a tableau - concentrating on a bored Austrian teenager shipped off to marry in a foreign land, first resisting then assimilating an alien lifestyle. The first stuttering moments in which she watches the rules of court and almost freezes to death in her bedroom as a succession of people, each of a higher authority are given the privilege of dressing her is nicely observed. For much of the time her life is portrayed with little direct speech, events explained through rumour and hearsay within court, time passing through montage sequences with selective editing mixed with very brief snatches of dialogue almost entirely from Marie Antoinette's perspective, the troubles of the realm reported to her, the court being a sealed captivity.

The problem with this approach is that it becomes repetitious. If the intention is to indicate the listlessness of living in the French court, it succeeds. The side effect is that you're constantly seeing Dunst in costume against Versailles, running, walking and gossiping sacrificing story momentum. Endless montages that tell the viewer that Marie is spending oodles of money to stave off boredom, throwing a seemingly endless succession of parties (which is commented upon) keeping her friends onside. It has the effect of making the film seem far longer than it actually is so that when the details of history, the reasons for the revolt of the people are introduced it's a relief because something is finally happening. The middle section of the film drags horribly, rather like that moment at the end of a meal when you've eaten far too much and you will end up leaving half of your desert.

The film also comes unstuck in the scenes that carry the burden of historical and biographical exposition which often feature quite stilted dialogue and almost feel introduced by studio decree. The first happens twenty minutes into the film when Mercy underlines to Marie the need for a son to keep the family line intact and seal the fate of Austria and France. There isn't any information that hasn't already been presented elsewhere and neither Dunst or Coogan looks particularly comfortable. Similarly later scenes in which Louis XVI is advised to help fund the US war and the raising of taxes is suggested (one of the inferred causes of the royal revolt) seem wrongly executed because they fall outside of Marie's point of view.

What stops me from damning the film too much is the poignancy of the ending, which I know has been criticised elsewhere because we don't actually see Marie get the chop. Actually its to Coppola's credit that she doesn't sacrifice the tone of the film to present complete historical accuracy. The story begins when Marie enters French aristocracy and Versailles and ends when she leaves both. As was largely no doubt the case in her life, at no point does the film venture out amongst the peasantry of France and to suddenly have them throwing her in prison and massing about the guillotine at the climax would have worked against what is overall the portrayal of a dove trapped in a cage of privilege.

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