Lost in Versailles

Marie Antoinette

a film directed by Sofia Coppola


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…

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