Well, she never was the people's queen. In ``Marie Antoinette," Sofia Coppola's beguiling consideration of the teen monarch's controversial reign, she never gets around to it. Stuck in big, boring Versailles, while combat and famine seize Europe, Marie (Kirsten Dunst) orders shoes from Paris and gets fitted for dresses. She devours pastry, gets her hair done by a flamingly fabulous friend, and runs off to masquerade balls. This Austrian lass sounds and acts like a Southern California princess.
In the opening minutes, Marie arrives in a French forest, after an eternal carriage ride, for the handover ceremony between Marie and her French fiance, the Dauphin Louis Auguste (Jason Schwartzman). When her door pops open, slouched in her seat, she asks her loyal adviser (Steve Coogan), ``Are we there yet?"
The marriage is to unify her country and Louis's. And the gist of the story finds Marie under tremendous pressure from her family to seduce her boyishly asexual husband for an heir that will seal the Franco-Austrian alliance. For her part, Marie looks both enthralled with and skittish about her new assignment. She gains a husband, but she loses a dog. ``Mops!" Marie cries as someone takes away her tiny pocket pug.
What, you ask, is Coppola up to? ``The Simple Life Versailles " ? It's a tempting possibility, since the first quarter of ``Marie Antoinette" presents, in unsparing detail, the minutia of royal etiquette and Marie's annoyance with it.
One morning dressing ritual leaves her shivering naked as the woman of the highest rank wins the honor of slipping a gown over her. ``This is ridiculous," Marie snarls. The film makes delicate comedy of the spectacle that her marriage is required to be. Dozens stand by as she and Louis climb into bed for the first time. Scores look on as they sit before copious piles of food. Before there was reality television, there was this: reality tableaux vivant. But only up to a point is Dunst's Marie like a certain American heiress with fake-French trappings. And only up to a point is the filmmaker offering satirical commentary.
Does Coppola mean to tell us that were Marie Antoinette with us today that she'd listen to the Strokes and issue decrees via MySpace? Is it that she was just grossly misunderstood, as Antonia Fraser demonstrated in the terrific book that inspired this movie? Or does Coppola feel a bond with Marie as a tastemaker? As art, the movie is neither shallow nor profound, just inconsequential. Yet Coppola is too clever a filmmaker to dismiss the movie out of hand. If her film is mostly surface then she skims with style.
Here and there, the requisite chamber music falls away, and the yips and yowls of Gang of Four and Bow Wow Wow tear up the soundtrack. The costumes, by Milena Canonero, are works of art in themselves. Do yourself a favor and savor the detailing on each garment: The clothes are where all the drama is. Given Coppola's fashion-first approach, it's a miracle the film doesn't feel more like a long perfume ad. But the movie has atmosphere, beauty, spirit, and exquisite production design, photography, and editing.
Sometimes ``Marie Antoinette" feels like a knowing knock on tourism (let's make a movie about the French with American accents!), and a more intentional jab at American cluelessness than ``Lost in Translation," which for all its prettiness reduced Tokyo to a sideshow. Coppola just lacks the wisdom or the focus to crystallize any particular critical idea.
Her movie is cool, as a matter of fashion, yes, but also of mood. The film that occurred to me frequently during ``Marie Antoinette" was Stanley Kubrick's fastidious ``Barry Lyndon," from 1975, another self-conscious approach to 18th-century Europe, featuring Canonero's marvelous clothes. While Kubrick's film was far bigger in scope and more uptight, both movies operate at a comical emotional remove.
``Marie Antoinette" is also the more shameless work of hipsterism. Behold Marianne Faithfull as Marie's mother. Look: Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson as gossipy aristos. As Louis XV, Rip Torn plows through the movie like an enormous pig, and Asia Argento vamps along as his slutty mistress.
Dunst is more than a bauble, though. No one will mistake Coppola for a discursive screenwriter, so the actress doesn't have much to say. But the director provides ample opportunity to show what a marvelously transparent performer her star is. This is not a part that calls for fire or angst. It requires frolic, mirth, exasperation, and ennui, and I can think of no better woman in Hollywood for that job than Dunst. Who else can express boredom without seeming bored?
What you miss in ``Marie Antoinette" -- and in ``Lost in Translation," for that matter -- is the burning human urgency and aesthetic wit Coppola brought to 1999's ``The Virgin Suicides," her first and still her best movie. They're glimpsed only in the final shot of a trashed Versailles. The image is pure rock 'n' roll. We're to believe the revolutionaries did the smashing. But since Coppola doesn't say, who's to stop us from thinking Marie and the gang didn't demolish the place before she and Louis checked out?
It's in these last minutes that Coppola's faux-historical sheen proves surprisingly eloquent. She spares us details of the Terror. Yet as a carriage speeds away with Marie and Louis, we know the after-party is going to hurt.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.