Throughout Sofia Coppola's clever account of Versailles court life, we wait for the moment when bubbleheaded Marie Antoinette will say to France's starving masses: "Let them eat cake." But the real theme is contained in another old French adage: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" -- the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Marie (Kirsten Dunst, right) is the ultimate material girl, with a passion for shoes, jewelry, fashion, gossip and extramarital romance that the "Sex and the City" sorority would instantly recognize. Her buy-till-you-die lifestyle would resonate with subscribers to Lucky, the self-described magazine about shopping. While her society crumbles offstage, Marie and her attendants play at being humble milkmaids -- shades of socialites Paris and Nicole in "The Simple Life."
Everywhere at court she sees the 18th-century ancestors of R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People."
Given the current state of things, any film about entrenched privilege will carry a strong charge of social criticism. But Coppola smartly underplays those themes, concentrating on the glittering superficiality of a regime that is both seductively lavish and repulsive. Despite a soundtrack that alternates minuets with well-chosen anachronisms from the Cure, Bow Wow Wow and New Order, Coppola rarely elbows us in the ribs to drive her point home. She has made her film smart, but never too smart for its own good.
Kirsten Dunst stars as the Austrian archduchess who became the last queen of France. One dismissive lady of the court describes the newcomer as an "apple strudel," and her journey into monarchy begins with her makeover into an exquisite French tart. In a huge tent on the border of France, the 14-year-old girl is stripped of her garments, fitted with an ornate hoop skirt, and her plain hair is teased into an elaborate confection. Even her lapdog, Mops, is taken away so that nothing of her home country remains.
The changing of her wardrobe is done with all the pomp and ceremony of a treaty signing -- which it is, in a way. Marie is high-born breeding stock, a pawn in a chess game she never troubles herself to understand.
Coppola sees monarchy as celebrity at its most empty and isolating; Versailles is a magnificent tomb filled with the living dead. Marie's new life is a repetitive ritual of dressing with a hundred attendants of varying rank and privilege, feasting in public, and tedium in the royal boudoir. Her 15-year-old husband, crown prince Louis-Auguste (Jason Schwartzman), is a plump, celibate cold fish with no inkling of how their eagerly anticipated heir to the throne should be produced.
Marie just wants to have fun, but court formality suffocates everyone except the absolute monarch, roguish Louis XV (Rip Torn) and his lascivious mistress Madame Du Barry (Asia Argento). In the seven years it takes the fumbling Louis-Auguste to impregnate Marie, she has few outlets other than opera, spiteful palace intrigues and costume fittings. Coppola makes her antiheroine's flights of excess look like a blast but never loses sight of the fact that her existence is as empty as it is beautiful.
The film is wonderfully cast. Dunst proves herself screen royalty as she effortlessly carries almost every scene in the film. Schwartzman, an odd choice as Louis-Auguste, brings sympathetic notes of befuddled affection to the royal couple's awkward marriage. Marianne Faithfull cuts a Queen Victoria-sized figure as Marie's politically savvy mother, Empress Maria Theresa. Judy Davis and Steve Coogan bring sparking intelligence to their roles as advisers to the princess, calculating precisely how much candor they can sift into their polite circumlocutions. (Not much, actually.)
If Marie were independent-minded and curious, she might have inquired about the conditions outside her gilded cage, but the oblivious girl and the insulating institutions of royalty were made for each other. When the stirrings of the mobs beyond her palace's manicured lawns can no longer be ignored, she helpfully commands, "Tell the court jeweler to stop setting diamonds."
The line sends us instantly back to the scene when Marie first takes a quill pen to a royal document, finishing her signature with an ink splotch that suggests an arterial spurt of blood. Coppola's film is a superior achievement, a story as rich and resonant as its protagonist is hollow.