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Sofia Coppola’s biographical work, Marie Antoinette, was selected for Competition at Cannes (2006). It’s first screening was at 8.30 am on on Wednesday May 24, in the stylish and enormous Grand Salon Lumiere cinema of the Palais des Festivals, packed with expectant attendees and some media – including editor Andrew L. Urban. Why were there boos at the end of the film? Urban has a theory.

Sofia Coppola earned industry respect with The Virgin Suicides, but she earned her real hot status with a whole universe of movie goers with Lost in Translation. When Marie Antoinette became the first of the Cannes Competition selected films to be widely known, expectations began to rise that Coppola would deliver something different. These expectations were given further fuel by some unpredictable casting choices, such as Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI and Rip Torn as his father. Marianne Faithfull plays Maria Theresa, the only Habsburg female to rule Austria and Hungary.

The film tells the story of the young Austrian Archduchess who became Queen of France at 15, known as Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst). She has a troubled time at Versailles, married to the foppish, sexless Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), under the bossy discipline of Comtesse de Noailles (Judy Davis) and pitted against the whole court. Gradually – especially after she finally manages to get the young King to do his duty and impregnate her – she becomes self assured and regal. Until the French Revolution knocks all that on the head. Literally.


The festivals’ Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux spoke of Marie Antoinette as an “audacious” film, a description that aroused an even more acute sense of wickedness, fun, and the delights of subversive filmmaking.

That Wednesday at 8.30 am, the lumieres in the Grand Salon Lumiere dimmed and we were reminded to turn off our mobile phones. The opening titles appeared on a bright pink background, and before they finished, there was Kirstin Dunst in regal garb sitting sideways to camera, having a pedicure. To her side there sat a giant cake, into which she deftly inserted a dainty finger, and then licked it clean, with a glance direct to camera as if to say, “What?” It was a tongue in cheek reminder of the most famous line attributed to her character: “Let them eat cake” and it seemed to announce an irreverent sensibility.

But that did not eventuate. The sumptuously made film, glorious visually, begins well enough, establishing the early part of the story with great style and energy. But soon the conflicting cultural and personal discrepancies of the cast takes its toll, and eventually the film begins to plod, lose pace and deflate.

When the French Revolution begins, our heroine is whisked away but we don’t follow; the punchy drama of her demise on the guillotine would have been a sensational contrast to the cloistered and cosetted existence within the palaces of France.

So after all, audacious it was not. That’s perhaps why, when the audience began to applaud, boos began to mingle with the applause and grow in volume. At the press conference immediately afterwards, Coppola was visibly surprised when she was asked what she had to say about the booing. She hadn’t been aware of it.

“What is your view about the French revolution?” came one predictable question.

“I wasn’t making a movie about the French Revolution,” she said dryly, “but a movie about Marie Antoinette.” End of answer. In subsequent – and equally economical – remarks, Coppola kept to the line that she was purely interested in the young woman’s journey from 14 year old Australian princess to Queen of France.

"a symbol of decadence"

“She was a symbol of decadence to me,” said Coppola, dressed in a frill-sleeved black and white spotted dress and looking reluctant to be there. “But when I read the book and began to research her life I grew fascinated by her and her journey. There are lots of myths about her, but I knew very little about her personally. She’s a much more interesting character [than I had thought].” Yet she had made Marie Antoinette a symbol of decadence, a charming and likeable character.

Sitting beside her star Kirsten Dunst, Coppola clarified why she cast her as Marie Antoinette: “Kirstin has both the effervescence and playfulness of Marie Antoinette, and she can also portray how she acquired a growing dignity as she grew a little older.”

Dunst ducked suggestions that she somehow related to the real person, maintaining that she just played the role. “She certainly had a different way of thinking to the rest of the French court, but Sofia gave me liberties to portray her as I wanted, as an unrestrained figure…”

A lot more unrestrainement all round might have made the film a more audacious and ultimately more satisfying film, which would give audiences something to talk about.

Published December 26, 2006

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