Like the Americans in her "Lost in Translation," the heroine of Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" is confronted with a baffling culture whose intricate rituals seem designed to confound the outsider. That's about where the similarities between the two movies end.
The new film's re-creations of court life in prerevolutionary Versailles are often ravishing to look at, but all the fabulous gowns and gorgeous confections start to pall once the aimlessness of the plot and pointlessness of the movie become apparent.
The movie starts out as an attempt to revise our view of a woman whose bad behavior and incredibly bad press helped bring down the monarchy. By the end, however, the vapidness of Marie Antoinette's characterization makes her seem not worth wasting a thought on one way or another. Films, like royalty, it turns out, cannot survive on style alone.
The movie begins with bracing anachronism, as shocking pink titles splash across the screen to the strains of Gang of Four belting out "Natural's Not in It." Given this spirited originality, it's a bit of a disappointment that Coppola's script lazily relies for much of its scaffolding on the deluxe 1938 version of the doomed queen's life starring Norma Shearer.
Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is whisked away from her native Austria to an arranged marriage with the future Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), a sodden prince whose only passions in life are hunting and locksmithing. Failing to find comfort in her chilly matrimonial bed, Marie throws herself into what she does best: shopping. In short order, she's livened up the court with a staggering array of candy-colored frocks and stratospheric hairdos, mostly to the accompaniment of bouncy '80s pop. Ultimately a hungry mob shows up brandishing pitchforks, and the royal funhouse goes into receivership. That's about it.
It's a lot to ask when you subject an audience to a full two hours' worth of postadolescent indulgence, and after the novelty of the epoch-blending aesthetic wears off, you can't help wondering just why Coppola wanted to put this story before the public. Sometimes it seems that Marie is being presented as one of us. She's the ultimate consumer, trying on and discarding identities as she would shoes, in a finally dispiriting quest for the one that will make the perfect statement. (Like the historical queen and Paris Hilton, this Marie Antoinette plays at living the simple life for a time, wearing linen shifts, milking cows and unlike Ms. Hilton, one must suppose reading Rousseau.) Meanwhile, her country is going down the drain, owing in part to its entanglement in an expensive, incomprehensible war far away in this case, the American Revolution.
It's hard to connect with this queen; any attempt ultimately founders on her determined bubbleheadedness. Although Dunst's Marie is often giddy, inwardly she seems placid to the point of inertness. Even when she dabbles in adultery or achieves a rapprochement with her wearying but good-hearted mate, she retains the same look of vaguely amused complacence. Her face is like a sunny, brightly painted room swept clean of all its furniture; it gives no indication of an interesting emotional life going on inside.
In addition to the costumes and fantastic displays of food, there are a handful of bright spots in the production. Chief, perhaps, is the inspired casting of Rip Torn as Louis "After-Me-the-Deluge" XV, the reigning king at the time of Marie's marriage. Sizing up the princess as he would a prime piece of horseflesh, he leers at her lithe form and sighs movingly at the thought that his heir doesn't know how to appreciate it. Judy Davis, as Marie's stern guide through the intricacies of court protocol, is consistently entertaining. In the face of her new mistress's excesses and unconventionality, she is the very picture of shocked propriety.
If the abundant talent here had been put in the service of a script with something other than fashion to show us, a splendid film could have resulted. But as things stand, when the rabble finally storms the gate, you feel as you do when someone has finally called in the cops to shut down the raucous party next door. A little sad, perhaps, that someone's pleasure has been curtailed, but on the whole relieved. (PG-13) 123 min. ** S
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