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Marie Antoinette a big letdown

Sofia Coppola?s film has turned out to be damp squib, observes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: May 25, 2006 11:31 IST

One of the most eagerly awaited films of the 59th Cannes Film Festival – Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – has turned out to be a damp squib, leading to disapproval from critics and delegates.

The 25-year-old American filmmaker’s take on the life and times of one of the best known figures of French history is a mangled mess of over-ambition, bad scripting, terrible miscasting and an ill-advised tone of farcicality.

To begin with, Kirsten Dunst doesn’t look 14, the age at which her mother packed off the Austrian Marie Antoinette to Versailles to marry the heir to the French throne. The accent adopted by most of the principal actors, especially Dunst in the title role and Rip Torn as Louis XV, is too American to pass muster. And the use of rock music and modernised backdrops backfire big time.

At the press conference that followed the screening, Coppola was, however, spared the volley of angry questions that one might have expected after witnessing the booing at the end of the show. Why on earth did you have to spend $40 million on a film about a French queen, she was asked rather uncharitably. "By Hollywood standards, $40 million isn’t all that much," she replied.

"I chose to make this film because I have always been interested in 18th century French history," Coppola said. "I have used Marie Antoinette and the French court of the period as symbols of decadence and frivolity."

She said she wasn’t too bothered about the negative response in Cannes to her Marie Antoinette, based on a voluminous book by Antonia Fraser. "Editing out details was a big challenge," Coppola said of the process of developing the book into a film script. The scripting took several years, allowing her to take a break and make the widely applauded Lost in Translation in the interim. "I had begun scripting Marie Antoinette after finishing The Virgin Suicides." Is the long gestation period one of the reasons why the film hasn’t quite shaped up right?

The boos that greeted her new film was reminiscent of the audience response to the opening film of this festival, Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code. The latter film then went on to collect well over $220 million in the opening week. "That is certainly heartening," said Coppola "I’d be really happy if something similar happens to my film."

Coppola suggests that Marie Antoinette is somewhat like the character played by Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. "They are both women trapped in an alien land," she says. "My intention was to trace Marie Antoinette’s journey to adulthood in circumstances that were hardly conducive."

Lead actress Dunst, seated alongside Coppola, lost no opportunity to spring to her director’s defence. "Sofia is the only director who has not tried to make me be something that I’m not. Watching Marie Antoinette is a bit like myself."

Sadly, the French audience isn’t exactly on the same page as Kirsten Dunst on that issue.