MARIE ANTOINETTE written and directed by Sofia Coppola, from the book by Antonia Fraser, with Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Danny Huston and Marianne Faithfull. 123 minutes. A Sony Pictures release. Opens Friday (October 20). For venues and times, see Movies, page 98. Rating: NNNNN
CANNES - People still underestimate Sofia Coppola.
The Virgin Suicides was undersold as a lucky fluke, helped along no doubt by her dad, Francis Ford Coppola, and then-husband, Spike Jonze.
Lost In Translation was harder to dismiss. Coppola made the first real zeitgeist movie of the new millennium and, unbelievably, became the first-ever American woman to be nominated for a best-director Academy Award. But still she got slagged as that overprivileged girl director.
Critics never failed to mention her godawful performance as Mary Corleone in Godfather III. The fact that she designed for fashion label Milk Fed only made it easier to write her off as a mall-rat dilettante with great connections.
Her voice doesn't help. In Cannes for the premiere of Marie Antoinette, she still talks about the history of the French Revolution in that lazy California slur. The end of Marie Antoinette's life "didn't appeal to me," she says.
At one point she'd written a scene where Marie escapes from prison, "but that's like an action movie. That's not my thing."
She sounds like she just woke from a nap and is mulling over where to go for dinner. That disguise sometimes makes it hard to discern a thinking artist's voice, but it's there. She is, after all, the director who successfully wrestled a Jeffrey Eugenides novel onto the screen, directed blank slate Scarlett Johansson to a performance of actual depth and found the hidden soul of Bill Murray.
When her father brought his own little historical trifle to Cannes - Apocalypse Now - the world trembled at his magnificent, bearded ego. Sofia will always look like a hamster by comparison, but she may prove to be the more consistent, rewarding filmmaker.
Note what she says about the Austrian teenager who travelled to France to marry Louis XVI, himself a year younger than his Roman numerals.
"What struck me about the story was how young they all were. She was 14 and coming to this new place that felt like a new school in a way, with the competition from the other women of the court.
"Imagine: these teenagers were in charge of France and Versailles. I wanted to accentuate that and have a real burst of energy of the kids' world versus the adult world of the court."
For Coppola, that approach dictated her use of 80s post-punk music by Gang of Four and Bow Wow Wow.
"There's a really young, vital spirit to that music. Usually history's not told from a young girl's point of view, and there's something a bit punk about that. I wanted to have that energy."
Pursuing the subjectivity of a teenage girl as she imagines her also dictated the intimate scope of the film, Coppola says. She deliberately kept her Marie in "this bubble."
"She had no awareness of what was going on outside Versailles. None of them did. So I wanted to understand their point of view. Then, when things start to fall apart, you're as surprised as they were."
Some historical purists will hate Marie Antoinette, but no one can deny its formal integrity. As in Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, Coppola delivers an internally consistent world and draws a surprising, fully three-dimensional performance from her lead actor.
It's more proof that as a filmmaker Coppola has perfect pitch. She is entirely attuned to the aesthetic details - the surfaces - that create depth.
"I always try to have it be as naturalistic as possible," she says simply.
And to anyone who still thinks Daddy helps her direct? It's the one moment when her voice catches an edge.
"After three movies," she says, "I shouldn't have to answer that question."
Spoken like a true director.
(Sofia Coppola) Rating: NNN
Coppola kicks off her revisionist history with jagged pink credits and the guitar shards of Gang of Four. This is 18th-century France through a post-punk lens, and it can be exhilarating.
Kirsten Dunst plays the Queen of Versailles as a teenager in way over her head. Frustrated by rigid social rituals and her dweeby new husband (Jason Schwartzman), she retreats into orgies of parties and acres of silk. She never sees the guillotine coming.
Following from The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, Coppola is most interested in the secret moments of her heroine's subjectivity. She is unmatched at capturing the sweet agony of girls made melancholy by men.
Minor Coppola but major pleasure.