It’s not all that shocking that some of cinema’s greatest works are those that seem to be misunderstood by critics upon their initial release, only to find a home in the hearts of those willing to dig a tad bit deeper, only years after the film debuted in theaters. Directors like Stanley Kubrick have seen various pictures scathingly tossed aside by critics when they first arrived, with modern cinephiles finding a monstrous amount of pleasure in basking in the brilliance they see within each frame.
Hell, that’s ostensibly what this entire weekly series of faux-film reviews have been an attempt to bring to light. Either forgotten or simply wrongly maligned, the films highlighted here in this For Criterion Consideration series are some of the greatest and yet most unsung masterpieces of their day, or any really. From a rarely seen masterpiece from a master filmmaker like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or an often maligned masterpiece from a beloved vulgar auteurist in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, this series hopes to, at least at the thesis level, shine a light on films that have been in the darkness for far too long.
And oddly enough, one of the greatest examples of this, at least from the last handful of years, has yet to be brought up. Until now. With news that she will now back a new take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Sofia Coppola has been a director who has seen her fair share of supporters and detractors, either being founded as one of the truly great filmmakers of her time or one who has only been thrust to her place by the power of her legendary father. However, as proven by her first two films, The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, she is more than a voice given the time of day due to nepotism. And yet, it was her third film that turned her into a full on auteur, and one of today’s most entrancing film makers.
Entitled Marie Antoinette, Coppola’s picture takes a look at the life and times of Europe’s most legendary monarchs. We are introduced to the youngster as she is being handed over to the equally youthful French prince, Louix XVI, and subsequently (and very much literally) stripped of all things relating to her past life as an Austrian noblewoman. However, things aren’t as peachy as one would expect, or one would see given the lavish parties this queen has a penchant for partaking in. With gossip consuming Versailles like small town America in the oddly comparable Douglas Sirk film All That Heaven Allows, and a France on the brink of revolution, the queens life of insulated pleasure ultimately takes a rather legendary turn for the bleak come the film’s final moments. Starring Kirsten Dunst as the titular historical figure, the film is both one of director Coppola’s greatest works, and one of the Aught’s must under appreciated masterpieces. Ostensibly a tableaux vivant of the most detailed order, Marie Antoinette is not only fitting of the almighty Criterion “C,” but of the respect and admiration of a generation of film fans that simply don’t understand this picture’s majesty.
Aesthetically, this film oozes Coppola’s sense of style. At first glance, its not our eyes that are captured and enraptured, instead our ears, as the soundtrack is the most talked about aspect of the picture. Very much inspired by the idea of what this young, vital queen would listen to if she grew up in this time period, this anachronistic and esoteric collection of post-punk gems and shoegaze staples (with a few classical tunes chucked in this sonic blender for good measure), this soundtrack is one that is the perfect sonic distillation of everything Coppola’s ear could offer the viewer. Entirely fitting of this pastel-laced, naturally lit masterpiece, the score and soundtrack adds a great deal of life to what could otherwise be a relatively slow and bewilderingly stuffy piece of costume drama aestheticism.
And yet Coppola’s camera helps quell those issues even more so. Almost entirely told via a static camera, with a frame that is as stuffed as it is oddly isolating for our lead character, Coppola’s direction here is as breathtaking as we’ve seen from the “costume” genre in ages. Think Badlands-era Malick and his lyricism mixed with Douglas Sirk’s claustrophobic look at the pettiness of man with a dash of Barry Lyndon stylistic detail and bombast, and you have what is ostensibly the equation one must use to find this lavish motion picture. Perfectly fitting this material and the attempted character study at the core of this film, the film sets, within the viewer, the oddest feeling. Both claustrophobic in the denseness of Coppola’s frame, and yet completely isolating for our fish-queen out of water, the film is a rather stunning distillation of this ideal.
Often argued as a film void of thematic relevance, that is not only entirely false, but entirely the opposite. A rather perfect example of style-as-substance, this gorgeously crafted meditation on youth is entirely founded intellectually by the aesthetic put in place by Coppola. From the music to the tableaux style, every second of this film breaths a cartoonishly vibrant sense of vitality and kinetic energy that is rarely, if ever, seen from this type of picture. The Sirk comparison is the one that seems most fitting upon multiple views, as the theme that keeps cropping up, if any, throughout the picture is one that makes the aforementioned Sirk picture so thrilling. Throughout the film, Antoinette, and the viewer, become privy to various moments of under the breath utterances and petty gossip from various members of the Versailles inner circle. It’s a thrilling bit of commentary from Coppola, and brings to the picture a great deal of thematic intrigue, and even an added layer of drama with regards to Antoinette’s isolation within the lavish world of Versailles.
Finally, the performances here are rather superb. Dunst is in rare form as the youthful Antoinette, a lively and lusty free spirit with woman-like beauty but the heart girl who just wants to be free of pressure, Dunst really gives this role a life and energy that wouldn’t be there in the hands of anyone else. It’s ostensibly the Dunst show, but names like Jason Schwartzman and Judy Davis bring interesting turns to the picture, particularly Schwartzman, an actor perfectly suited for this quiet performance. However, as with the film itself, this is entirely a picture built on aesthetics, so the performances here are the right bit of physical brood and verbal lyricism that feel ripped entirely out of the same sense of anachronism that the soundtrack is. It’s truly a thing of real, raw, beauty.
Overall, while there is a readily available DVD out there with a handful of features, a new Blu-ray would be more than welcome. A new transfer would really do this film wonders, and some added supplements would be interesting. A look into the real life Marie Antoinette would be a welcome addition, as would be a commentary and a retrospective about the film’s making. Maybe pair it with a release of Suicides, Coppola’s first picture, and you’ll have a release that is as must own as they come.