I want to like Sofia Coppola's films. I really do. A female studio director is rare enough in the first place. But to have a female American auteur - well, at the moment, Coppola stands alone. I think it's important to have women helming big-budget films, and equally important to give them credit where it's due (despite the fact that Coppola was handed her career on a silver platter by her father Francis - as I like to remind people, I went to CalArts with her, and back then no one could deduce in her any latent talent or even interest in making films). So I feel the same ambivalence about Coppola as I do about Condoleezza Rice: It's great that a woman can achieve such prominence in her field. If only I could admire her actual work.
Marie Antoinette suffers from the same affliction as Coppola's first two features, The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation: It has no story. Like its predecessors, it looks and sounds terrific. Coppola does have a gift for capturing a time and place, and she knows where to find just the right music. The soundtrack for Marie Antoinette changes with each act: stuffy chamber music for Marie Antoinette's first few years as a lonely dauphine trapped in the gossipy court of Louis XV, '80s new wave - with a particular fondness for Bow Wow Wow - for her madcap years as a free-spending queen, and finally sad opera arias for the final days of the monarchy.
With minimal dialogue and no plot to speak of (outside of a bit of worry over whether Marie Antoinette can force her bashful husband to have sex with her, thus guaranteeing an heir to the throne), it's clear that Coppola has set out to make an "experience" film, one that simply purports to show what Marie Antoinette's life at the court was like, without commentary, context, or judgment. The results feel authentic, but absent any real drama, the movie is frankly dull.
Dunst is fine as the spirited young royal, and Jason Schwartzman (Coppola's cousin) is dryly funny as her asexual husband, the future Louis XVI. The rest of the hip, if wasted, cast is peppered with other children of famous directors: Danny Huston (John's son), Asia Argento (Dario's daughter), Katrine Boorman (John's daughter). It could even be argued that this a personal story for Sofia Coppola as it resembles her own charmed life as the heir to a rich and powerful dynasty. All three of her films, in fact, are about pampered but lonely girls who just want to kick up their heels and have some fun. Maybe that says something about Coppola, but I'd like to see an actual story support that flimsy premise.