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September 18, 2008

DVD Journal: "Marie Antoinette"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Sofia Coppola's 2006 biopic of the Austrian-born French queen is sporadically amusing, occasionally pretty, and not-too-annoying, at least if you can take it as a sassy, indie-chick, art-school-style costume party. It's pretty much a yawn otherwise -- and, needless to say, a complete wipeout as a trad-style movie.

For one thing, it's story-free. The film couldn't care less about "what?" or "how?" questions. It's entirely concerned with "What did it feel like for her?"

As The Wife said, "It's like eating cookies with your girlfriends and mulling someone over together. 'Was she really so bad?' 'It wasn't her fault she was rich.' 'I could see myself doing that.' 'I don't know, she didn't have a good marriage. She deserved to take a lover.' 'So what's wrong with liking to shop?' 'I don't care what anyone says, I feel sorry for her'."

For another, there are no performances to speak of. What the performers are doing here is something more like "lending their looks and spirits to the general mood" than anything like acting, at least in the reading-lines-and-pursuing-objectives sense. It's like they're all -- major characters included -- extras in a director's crowd scene.

For a third, it's drama-free. Suspense? Involvement? Setups and payoffs? No thanks. What you get instead are "sections," as in "This is the cheesy-horror-movie, blue-lit, meeting-the-scary-relatives section"; "This is the ironic-but-fun, cut-cut-cut, Paris-Hilton-goes shopping section"; and "This is the gauzy, hippie-chick, 'Elvira Madigan,' free-love section."

It's a kicky 123-minute long, ultra-feminine video mood piece, in other words. In the making-of material on the DVD, Coppola can be overheard saying delightedly, "This could totally be an Adam Ant video!"

So how well does "Marie Antoinette" come across as a frou-frou, kooky-performance-art, hip-fashion-magazine spectacle? YMMV, of course, but I was a little startled by how charmless much of the movie felt. It felt like one of those offbeat college productions whose appeal doesn't extend much beyond participants, friends, and parents.

I didn't love Sofia's earlier movies -- "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation" -- either. But in them Sofia did show some dreamy if solipsistic talent. As narcissistic reveries, they worked.

Here her filmmaking seems flatfooted and uninspired -- as a postmodern ringmaster, she has a ways to go before she becomes her generation's Fellini, at least if my responses are worth paying attention to. Perhaps it takes more in the way of dynamism than Sofia seems interested in coming up with to put this kind of show over? But maybe this is just the impatient-for-more-action male in me speaking ...

All that said, the rococo clothing, hair, decor, and foodstuffs are to die for, it's fun spending time in and around the actual Versailles, and I'm always happy to hear a little Gang of Four and Bow Wow Wow.

A few questions the film left me thinking about:

  • Coppola certainly has a lot of taste, of a mix-and-match, downtown-trust-fund-kid sort. But is taste the same thing as talent?
  • What is the difference between having taste and having talent? Especially in the case of a film director, whose work after all is like that of a music conductor, orchestrating the creativity and skills of others?
  • And do "having taste" and "having talent" have more in common these days than they used to, now that we're sharing an electronic, dial-it-up, push-your-own-buttons universe?

Incidentally, Sofia Coppola may be a lovely young woman, and you may enjoy her movie loads. (FWIW, I have no trouble with the idea that Sofia is a significant figure of some sort, especially where the development of movies-as-self-pleasing-videos goes.) In case this isn't obvious enough: My blog posting isn't an attempt at rendering definitive judgment, it's just me passing along my personal reactions. They're amusing, perceptive, helpful, etc, or they're not. Check Sofia's movie out for yourself and get back to us with your own reactions.

Incidentally, The Wife just read this blogposting and said, "Oh, your real problem with the movie is that it's just too damn girly for you."

Bonus points:



posted by Michael at September 18, 2008


I like your questions regarding taste vs. talent very much, it's something I've talked about with friends a lot. I think it all comes down to the difference of being an appreciator vs. being a creator. We need both, of course, but recognizing good art/design/whatever is not the same as being able to create it.

That said, I've liked all 3 of Sofia's movies for what they are: limpid, incredibly female mood pieces. There's really nothing more to them than that and that's fine by me. I suppose being almost exactly her age helps in appreciating her stuff. She pushes all the right buttons for a certain age group, I guess.

Posted by: JV on September 19, 2008 1:46 PM

The reason I enjoyed the film are in line with your points. It didn't make any sort of attempt to be anything other than an extended music video with cool costumes. There are worse ways to spend two hours.

Posted by: jonathanjones02 on September 19, 2008 3:13 PM

I second JV. They are limpid mood pieces, intensely feminine, and, can't you guess? I liked them. Well, lost in translation and marie antionette - didn't see the other one.

I felt at the end of marie antionette that the whole film was to channel one emotion - this, then, is a life, and how quickly it goes, and so suddenly, and here we are. She's in a carriage riding away with the king, never to see Versaille again. It's like memory-dream film-making where you have the same odd tug at the heart a quiet sunny late afternoon gives you - the day is ending, it's so quiet, a bit melancholy and what will evening bring?

Anway, that's my wierd idiosyncratic take on it. Oh and no time for punctutation today, spelling and punctutuation are sometimes a pain. I could never be an editor or in any of that book type business, can't you guess?

Posted by: MD on September 19, 2008 3:24 PM

I liked "Marie Antoinette" rather more than than "The Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation"--maybe because it struck me more as pure froth, less reaching for something outside of itself. At some level "The Virgin Suicides" seemed to glamorize teen suicide and "Lost in Translation" wanted to glamorize xenophobia or alienation or something. Whereas "Marie Antoinette" simply glamorized glamor. I drifted along quite happily with its posh frivolousness. I suppose the French might view things differently.

Posted by: Steve on September 19, 2008 4:02 PM

JV -- That all seems sensible. Or at least we're describing the same movies, if from different perspectives. You've got me curious: What set of generational buttons is it that Sofia's so good at hitting? To us oldies they scream "spoiled, self-indulgent, narcissistic, completely disconnected from life's real realities." But that's old-fogey stuff. What do they mean to y'all, do you think?

MD -- That's a nice evocation and you make funny punctuation look good. Me, I'd save up that degree of enthusiasm and eloquence for Mozart, maybe -- Sofia seems to me to operate on the level of the latest indie-check CD or special issue of a kicky fashion magazine, not that there's anything wrong with that. But maybe I'm being unfair.

Steve -- "Pure froth" and "glamoring glamor" are really good.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 19, 2008 4:27 PM

Hey, another question for you? Traditionally one of the functions of "story" was to help people get through long presentations. People generally can sit still for 2-15 minutes of story-free stuff, but anything longer than that and they generally need some story (suspense, characters, surprise, etc). One of the things that characterizes some of these new-media-gen creations is complete lack of story -- they're more like big versions of short videos: catchy concept, loads of lighting and activity and music, distinctive mood, and it's over. I'm honestly surprised that this TV-ad-gone-enormous approach works for some people at anything longer than five minutes -- say, 90 minutes (or in this case 123 minutes). I get very restless. I want some story. But y'all seem to have no trouble sitting through a long-form presentation that consists of little but concept/visuals/mood/ music/cutting. Fair enough? And is it because ... I dunno, the video approach is central, so it makes instinctive sense to you that the movie experience should adopt a video approach? Something like that?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 19, 2008 4:36 PM

Should have added that your essay was really good and so was Sean O'Hagan's--thanks for the link. Hilarious the way in the O'Hagan piece negative reactions to her work just kind of bounce off her--or somehow get absorbed into her kind of hip, mellow, "it's all cool" affectlessness. It's definitely a kind of armor--one I imagine she developed after the brickbats that came her way as an actress for "Godfather III."

Posted by: Steve on September 19, 2008 4:46 PM

"One of the things that characterizes some of these new-media-gen creations is complete lack of story..."

But is that really different from a lot of, say, Antonioni? I mean, I'm not putting Coppola on that level, god knows, but, girliness aside, aren't they both making mood pieces? Would you say that "Marie Antoinette" has less plot than "L'avventura"?

Posted by: Steve on September 19, 2008 4:57 PM

Mozart! Yikes. I am distinctly unmusical, can't even do poetry, so, I'd need another example.

Oh, I disagree, I think Coppola's better than that just stylish or fasionable, but, it's true I don't need plot very much because I tend to make up my own backstory to things. I can understand, completely, the objections to Coppola, though. If you want story, you want story. And why shouldn't you have story, if that's what you want?

*OT: I tried watching Fellini-Satiyricon the other day, because it just happened to be on cable, and I couldn't stand more than two whol minutes of it. Ugh. I changed the channel immediately. Lurid and boring, that's what I thought.

Posted by: MD on September 19, 2008 5:19 PM

The generation thing that Sofia does so well is a sort of all-encompassing, lifestyle approach to whatever it is she does. Same approach as Spike Jones (her ex), Beastie Boys, etc. Everything is exactly in place: the music, the lighting, the clothes, the subject matter. It's perfectly chosen, and I think that gets back to the taste vs. talent thing. People like the ones I've mentioned are exquisitely attuned collectors and re-packagers of culture. The New Order song in Marie Antoinette, she could have picked a bunch, but Celebration sits in that sweet spot between obvious and too obscure. It was a perfect choice. And the Adam Ant quote, I'm surprised that she was surprised, as the entire flick seemed to be a tribute to the New Romantics movement of the early 80s, of which Mr. Ant was a leader.

It goes beyond the cultural references, though. She gives off an unaffected, detached attitude like no one else, and while hers may be born of privilege (and a special kind of privilege, the cultural privilege that comes from having a wildly successful artist as a parent), it resonates for whatever reason, maybe a kind of post-ironic embrace of elitism. And fuckin' A, why not embrace elitism if that's your bent? I know I do.

Posted by: JV on September 19, 2008 5:52 PM

Sorry, the New Order song is Ceremony, not Celebration.

Posted by: JV on September 19, 2008 5:53 PM

Talent vs. taste? Talent is a fairly straightforward thing (at least in some can tell right away if somebody's got it). But taste? I admit to being stymied by that. Opposed to "gross", aka "tasteless", sure it's clear enough. But I have no sense of what, say, "tasteful" would mean when applied to clothing, appearance, the aesthetics of a space, a gift, and so much else where other people seem to just, well, know. Me...stumped.

It's like some of those untranslatable terms from other cultures. Wabu from Japanese, say. Taste is a term in English I just can't seem to get.

Taste? Lost in translation.

Oh, and I've had dreams like MA. SC's good at evoking dreamland.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 19, 2008 6:30 PM

Terrific review. I loved your wife's analysis. With so many classics from the '30s, '40s and '50s I've yet to see, life is too short to waste on this flick. I did not like either of Sofia Coppola's previous two efforts and feel sorry for anyone who had expectations for her to do significant work. At this point, her movies wouldn't pass the muster as outtakes from her father's movies in the 1980s.

Posted by: Joe Valdez on September 19, 2008 9:44 PM

I think an artist needs both talent and taste. Talent alone goes off the rails, taste alone is empty posturing.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on September 20, 2008 1:47 PM

Did they have the all-important blonde-head-popping-into-the-basket section? Scarlett Johansson's head being shown to the crowd?

I thought not. Chick flicks are always disappointing that way.

Posted by: John Emerson on September 21, 2008 9:31 AM

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