It's easy to "get" the central conceit of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Shooting in authentic locations like the Palace of Versailles and with Milena Canonero supplying the requisite dazzling period costumes, Coppola has her Oscar-season cake, and eats it too by applying postmodern touches: '70s cinematographic style and '80s song and dance. All well and good, if it served a strong auteurist point-of-view.
But Coppola enters, with no apparent exit strategy, into Antoinette's life (Coppola's starting point: Antonia Fraser's biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey). What we learn about the 18th Century princess-turned-queen would take up roughly five minutes of high-school lecture, leaving nearly two hours for Coppola to be conceptually perky but vapid. Once she makes the sound feminist point that it wasn't easy being a girl in 1768, Coppola proves intellectually taxed.
Kirsten Dunst plays Antoinette, and Jason Schwartzman her King Louis XVI. A couple of convenience, the pair can't get it together sexually as Louis seems clueless with his equipment and—though not unwilling—not very motivated either. Endlessly frustrated by the fruitless marriage and an empty lifestyle, Marie turns to the party scene to fill her hours (Coppola absurdly depicts Louis, at a party, ineffectually suggesting to Marie that he would like for them to go home, if that's alright with her).
Coppola mines some humor from the repression and social alienation of palace life. Introduced to her court's intrusive "rights of entry" into her bedchamber, Marie says, "This is ridiculous," only to be told, "This, madam, is Versailles." Rip Torn gets laughs just by showing up (as horny Louis XV), Judy Davis gives the best performance in the film as the snooty Comtesse de Noailles, and the hushed discussions of "the great work" of Marie and Louis' marriage bed amuses.
But the ad-libby modernized dialogue ("I heard she's really nice," "I like your hair—what's going on there?") amounts to no more than the pomp and circumstance and ornamental designs that Coppola lovingly photographs. Nevertheless allergic to costume-drama stodginess, Coppola styles her picture with contemporary flourishes, particularly a rock soundtrack that gives Marie's story a punk edge and vaguely suggests modern emotional and social parallels while only briefly, inanely alluding to—well, y'know—history (like the Louis' disasterous support of America's Revolutionary War). Coppola's aversion to dialogue blunts the film's stabs at intellect, so the film comes off as a shallow, French-history-for-dummies estate tour, gorgeous but utterly lacking in contextual complexity.
By the time civilian revolt calls Antoinette to answer for a life of palatial decadence, we realize we have no idea what this young woman thinks (save a fleeting, unsubtle reference to her supposed "Young Mothers Fund" charity), and her feelings are hardly more substantive or convincing: when we last see her—head still physically intact—she's wearing a thousand-yard stare instead of the frantic mien that would seem to make emotional sense. Ah, she's a strong and spirited one that Marie! A good soul, mistreated! Um...a blank soul, whose sound and flurry signify nothing.