Film: Daydream Nation

Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is another languid trip into the female psyche

Oct 18, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Columbia Pictures

Together again: Sofia Coppola (left) guides Kirsten Dunst on the set of Marie Antoinette.

Sofia Coppola is a mistress of listlessness. She loves to present her young protagonists in mid-daydream, as if there could be nothing greater than witnessing a girl in thought.

Her first film, The Virgin Suicides (2000), opens with Kirsten Dunst's golden visage floating amid a cluster of poofy clouds as the languid sounds of French Synth-Pop duo Air evoke a melancholy mood. Visually assured and emotionally nuanced, The Virgin Suicides announced the presence of a filmmaker with a unique point of view and style to spare.

The similarly dreamy and rueful Lost in Translation (2003) took Coppola's woozy visions to an even wider audience. The attention was somewhat of a surprise given that her vague narrative tendencies wouldn't seem to warrant widespread interest. But the film had Bill Murray and a burgeoning Scarlett Johansson, a pair of endlessly watchable actors set amid the upscale backdrop of a fascinating foreign land. It didn't matter that it had little to say; mood and detail carried the day. And, as usual, the soundtrack ruled.

Now comes Marie Antoinette, a biopic so rife with interiority that one half expects the camera to enter Kirsten Dunst's head and never leave.

Coppola transcends typical period piece stereotypes from the get-go: She sets the opening credits to Gang of Four's "Natural's Not It," an aptly thematic intro that finds singer Jon King's words never more prescient: "The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure/Ideal love a new purchase/A market of the senses/Dream of the perfect life." It's a deliriously effective tone-setter for a film that rarely ceases to defy expectation.

From there the action cuts to a familiar Coppola milieu: 14-year-old Marie (Dunst) lying in bed, half conscious amid a bevy of pillows. It's the day she is to leave her family and friends in Vienna, Austria, for the decadence of Versailles, France, where she is to marry Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). Essentially, that's the film's central concern: What it feels like to be dropped into a foreign place where all of your touchstones have vanished only to be replaced by an indifferent husband and a gossipy, spoiled set of underlings.

Coppola isn't interested in making a historical epic. The politics of the period are largely ignored in favor of a procession of scenes that convey Marie's various emotional states. Coppola's spare script — much of which is based on Antonia Fraser's biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey — could just as soon be set in a contemporary high school as 18th-century France. Well, minus the ornate dresses, extravagant French pastries and the endlessly opulent Versailles estate.

"It's not a documentary or a history lesson," Coppola says during a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "I wanted it to be impressionistic and to be as close as I could to what it might have felt like to be there at that time."

Pregnant and clad in a black designer dress, Coppola speaks in a calm, measured voice, hands in constant motion in an attempt to convey her thoughts more fully.

"I felt like when I saw Amadeus, and they were speaking in their regular accents, they felt like real people to me as opposed to someone living in some other era that I couldn't relate to," she says. "So I was trying to take away as many kind of period film genre clichés and simplify it into a way that could be relatable on a human level."

That she has done, so much so that one can't help but feel for Marie (her relationship with Louis went unconsummated for the first seven years of their marriage), a misunderstood figure whose apparent disregard for her people ultimately led to her downfall.

"When I read Antonia Fraser's biography what was interesting was the real human behind all the myths and this sort of icon that we've heard about as the frivolous, evil French queen. I wanted to show a portrait of the real person based on the research and letters and do a more intimate portrait of this woman. I was never setting out to make a historical epic. I wanted to show the insulation of her life."

Marie Antoinette's lush set design, relatively spare visual scheme — it was shot by intuitive cinematographer Lance Acord, on location in Versailles the first film ever given such access — and immersive, emotionally-adept soundtrack — Coppola again works with talented music supervisor Brian Reitzell — go a long way in creating the intimacy the director craved.

"I always like to start with the atmosphere, the tone, the music and the look, and tell the story as much as I can without dialogue. I try to tell the story with expressions and the emotion. I even thought about doing it as a silent film. I'm not really dialogue driven. I like to express as much as I can in the visuals."

As the conversation winds down, Coppola's mood grows wistful as she comes to the realization that three years of hard work are finally coming to fruition. Marie Antoinette is the end of a certain phase in her life, one in which her characters grew as much as she did.

"When I finished this movie I definitely found that there was a connection between the themes of my films, and, in fact, that this was the final chapter of something that I was working on. It's the next step in a girl's evolution. In Lost in Translation she's on the verge of trying to find her identity, and I feel like this story is her going from a girl to a woman." ©