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Lost in Versailles

Marie Antoinette

a film directed by Sofia Coppola

1.

An unconventional film asks us to imagine a troubled young woman. In one sense, a superficial one to be sure, this is not at all difficult to do: the exterior of this young woman is an appealing one, and tends to attract the eyes of artists. She is, after all, barely out of her teens, blond, attractive if not a conventional beauty—there is the question of that lower lip—and has an undeniable grace to which complete strangers seem to respond unusually strongly. This reaction, at once aesthetic and emotional, may have to do with the fact that when her story begins, she is clearly stranded in the dangerous territory between adolescence and true womanhood; even after she grows up, and after we know how her story ends, the feelings she tends to evoke in observers are not unmixed with a certain protectiveness.

Her interior life is more complicated. Although she comes from the ruling class, and has been raised to inhabit a comfortable and predictable milieu, this young woman suffers a transformative crisis. Snatched up and taken very far from the safety of her home, she is set down in a (to her) bizarre and inexplicable world: rigidly hieratic, ruled by arcane conventions of speech and behavior that she, like the audience, finds difficult if not impossible to decipher. (The language spoken in this place is not hers, for one thing.)

Perhaps worse, although this woman, young as she is, is married, she is already aware that her marriage is a difficult, perhaps unsalvageable one; her husband’s greatest passion, it would appear, is the complicated mechanical gadgets he likes to fuss with. In an understandable, almost adolescent reaction to all this, there are rebellions: pouty fits, madcap escapades, giddy nocturnal jaunts, flirtations that may or may not be harmless. Such excesses and experimentations, we are meant to feel, are merely means by which this unformed young woman is trying to figure out who she truly is. There is never any real question, in the film, that she is someone worthy of our sympathies and affection.

The foregoing is a fair description of Sofia Coppola’s 2003 movie Lost in Translation, a surprise art-house success about a naive young American woman who, left alone in a luxurious Tokyo hotel while her fashion photographer husband is on assignment, gets a bittersweet introduction to the complexities of grown-up life—not the least of which is a life-altering flirtation with a world-weary film star old enough (as they are both well aware) to be her father. That it is also largely an accurate description of the director’s new film, Marie Antoinette, a highly unconventional biopic inspired by Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic 2001 biography of the hapless last queen of the ancien régime,1 tells you a lot about the director and her preoccupations; and explains a lot, too, about the many attractions, and ultimately the fatal weaknesses, of the new movie.

Marie Antoinette is Coppola’s third film, and the third of her films to deal with the problems of spirited young women chafing at social restraints. Her moody 1999 debut, The Virgin Suicides, was based on the 1993 novel of the same name by Jeffrey Eugenides, whose distinctive “choral” narrator—a first-person-plural voice representing a group of teenaged boys—looks on as the five lovely daughters of the Lisbon family, crushed by narrow-minded parental repression, kill themselves over the course of some months. Merely the choice to adapt Eugenides’s novel (which, on the face of it, was unfilmable) told you a lot about the first-time director’s offbeat, unemphatic artistic style, so unlike that of her famous father, Francis Ford Coppola. The film itself immediately established what can now be seen as a signature style: a preference for visual mood-setting over narrative vigor as a means of establishing character and themes, a distinctive and sometimes almost surreal use of certain effects (surprising interruptions; extreme, almost intrusive close-ups; evocative use of slow motion), a game, and gamine, willingness to be playful, even irreverent.

This technique well served her particular interest in representing the inner lives of the troubled young women in that first film—women on the verge of adulthood who had not yet found the words to express their seething, confusing feelings; who rely, as Coppola occasionally does, not without a certain wittiness, on the artifacts of pop culture to get their feelings across. (There’s a moving scene in The Virgin Suicides where the girls, virtually imprisoned in their parents’ meticulous, rather soulless house, communicate with the besotted boys by playing favorite pop albums over the phone to them.) It is, indeed, a striking feature of Coppola’s style in that film (and the subsequent ones as well) that the visual is given such preference over the verbal; like that of so many adolescents, the dialogue of her half-grown heroines feels tentative, almost experimental. I have always suspected that you could turn off the sound and watch it with no great diminishing of enjoyment.

This was certainly the case with Lost in Translation, whose very title alerts the viewer to the fact that this is the story of people forced to explore their inner lives not least because they have been deprived of their natural linguistic setting. The film makes an ongoing joke of the difficulties that young Charlotte, a callow would-be writer, and Bob, the emotionally exhausted action-picture star who’s come to Tokyo in order to make a lucrative if inane liquor advertisement, have in making themselves understood during their sojourn; everything from ordering sushi to taking direction from a Japanese director becomes fraught with unease, even peril. It’s as much for this reason, this failure in the ability to communicate, as for any other that the two Americans fall, not without a certain weary relief, into each other’s arms. (Or almost fall: as in its model, Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter, there is never a physical consummation.) Not insignificantly, the moment when their feelings for each other become clear takes place in a karaoke bar, when they are merely mouthing the words of others—a scene noteworthy not least because it’s so similar to the record-player scene in The Virgin Suicides.

This distrust of language and pre-occupation with the limits of what can be communicated in words—the film ends, famously, with Bob whispering something into a tearful Charlotte’s ear as he takes his leave of her; we never learn what it is he says, although we see her reacting to it—is compensated for by a powerfully evocative visual style already much evolved from that of The Virgin Suicides. Feelings of displacement, loneliness, and emotional disconnectedness are moodily conveyed by Coppola’s camera: of particular note (not least because they reappear in Marie Antoinette) are jumbled shots of local scenery passing by in an artistic but incomprehensible blur, as if the eye of the observing subject—the frightened young woman—can’t quite absorb it all.

These repeated shots of Tokyo skyscrapers whizzing frenetically, confusingly by, the garishly colored neon advertisements and traffic signs flashing their incomprehensible (to Charlotte) seductions and warnings, are beautifully balanced by moments of almost poetic stillness that are equally eloquent in their ability to tell us, even if she cannot, what the heroine is thinking. There is a remarkable scene in which Charlotte, suspecting her husband of infidelity with the vacuous film star he’s photographing, flees the crush of Tokyo and silently observes a traditional wedding procession in Kyoto. The slow-motion progression of the bridal party, immaculate in its traditional makeup and dress, and the seemingly random but somehow pointed way that the camera has of lingering in close-up on a hand, a delicately rouged cheek, or an eyelid, tell you more about the tension between the life that Charlotte wants and the life that she’s got right now than a long monologue could ever do.

The success of Lost in Translation suggested, in retrospect, the limitations of the earlier film. Although striking and often effective, The Virgin Suicides suffered from a lack of focus—a problem exacerbated by the director’s already impressionistic tastes—that derived, at least in part, from the source material: the sense of diffuseness you had at the end owed much to the fact that there were, at least in theory, five tragic heroines competing for the filmmaker’s, and the audience’s, attention. (The most effective bits come in the first third of the movie, which is the story of how the first of the five comes to kill herself; what is meant to be the horrific climax, with the remaining four doing themselves in all at once, feels curiously rushed and flat. Film, with its single eye, is probably not the right medium for “choral” narration and plots.) In Lost in Translation, a film that she wrote as well as directed and over which, therefore, she had total control, Coppola was able to concentrate her distinctive eye on one particular young woman in a particular bit of trouble, with affecting results.

2.

The fourteen-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, known by the affectionate nickname Antoine at home but renamed Marie Antoinette with an eye to her French marriage, newly arrived at Versailles from Vienna, was nothing if not a particular young woman in a particular bit of trouble. She was raised at the (comparatively, as such things go) relaxed court of her mother, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa: despite the 1,500 liveried lackeys who could be made to materialize on state occasions at the Hofburg and at Schönbrunn, family life for the royal Habsburg couple and their sixteen romping children was pleasantly disorganized, full of amateur musicales and sledging parties. The impulsive, good-natured, not terribly bright young girl was betrothed, in a typical bit of matrimonial diplomacy, to the equally young French dauphin; her mother was eager for an alliance with France.

And so off she went, in an immense and magnificent cavalcade of nearly sixty elaborate coaches—twenty thousand horses were said to have been used, so many were the changes of animals necessary to transport the vast procession from Austria to France—with the results that are, by now, familiar to all. The cold marriage to the well-meaning but awkward, sexually dysfunctional Louis Auguste, later Louis XVI; the shame that went with not being able to produce a child for a full eight years, while all around her the brittle court ladies gossiped and smirked. (It took the quite explicit intervention of Antoinette’s brother, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, to get the French king in sexual working order.)

And then, her notorious resort to a frivolous life of nonstop amusement and nonstop spending on a scale that repeatedly brought down the wrath of her sage, disappointed mother among many others. “I,” wrote Maria Theresa, in one of a barrage of scolding letters that winged their way with brutal frequency from Schönbrunn to Versailles, “who love my little Queen and watch her every footstep, cannot hesitate to warn her of her frivolousness in this matter.” To which admonitions Antoinette replied, in a sulky letter to Mercy, the Empress’s ambassador to France, “What does she want? I am terrified of being bored.”

  1. 1

    Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).

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