The mere existence of a Marie Antoinette biopic directed by the inventive Sofia Coppola, following up the terrific Lost In Translation, promises a historical costume drama the likes of which has never been seen. For roughly three minutes, Marie Antoinette delivers on that promise. Gang Of Four's "Natural's Not In It" plays against the bump of Sex Pistols-inspired titles, culminating in an image of Kirsten Dunst, Coppola's Antoinette, resplendent in the kind of starched-and-powdered 18th-century luxury that keeps anything remotely natural at arm's length. It's a thrilling introduction. Then the film begins.
Beautifully shot with nods to late-18th-century art and the icy formality of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Coppola draws on Antonia Fraser's sympathetic bio Marie Antoinette: The Journey, letting Dunst play the queen as a nice, naïve Austrian girl thrust into a strange land and an arranged marriage by politics she doesn't understand. She's shaped by fame and lofty expectations, but never turned into the monster that history made her to be. Dunst and her Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) mostly live in isolation at Versailles. They host parties and attend to domestic affairs (and later, for Dunst, love affairs) in a hurricane's eye that keeps a growing storm at bay, at least for a while.
It's a daring move, focusing on the isolated splendor and interior dramas, and letting the politics remain at most a distant rumble; Coppola deserves credit for offering a different, and probably truer, perspective on life as a royal. But the perspective rarely lends itself to compelling filmmaking. When Marie Antoinette does settle into the business of plot, it scares up some nice moments, bringing dry humor into Schwartzman's all-too-public inability to consummate his marriage, much less produce an heir. And the film takes time to explore fascinating details, such as the servant charged with wiping off the eggs at a country retreat so Dunst's daughter can gather them. Elsewhere, Rip Torn and Asia Argento bring some much-needed earthiness to the airless proceedings as Louis XV and his uncouth mistress Madame du Barry.
But for all its invention, Marie Antoinette ultimately falls into the same traps as other historical dramas. It has to check off history's highlights–Louis XV's death, du Barry's expulsion, the American Revolution, "Let them eat cake!"–as it chugs toward the inevitable. The mostly post-punk and new-wave soundtrack feels shoehorned in, and Dunst's flat line-readings do little to squelch the notion that the film's insights don't go much further than the costumes and famous locations. It's history written with truffles.