Last week I finally saw Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. I say “finally” because I’d meant to see the movie long ago, when it was in theaters. But I almost never go to movie theaters anymore. Conventional wisdom dictates that the biggest movie lovers go to theaters for first-run showings. But for me, it’s precisely because I care about what I’m watching that I don’t want to let some other person’s talking or food munching distract from what I’m watching. I'm willing to wait a few months to watch it at home.
Anyway, back to Marie Antoinette. If I were counting on one hand my favorite contemporary filmmakers (in terms of mainstream narrative filmmaking, that is), Sofia Coppola would be on the list for sure. And I love seeing her style develop in a manner that transcends any individual film but also never feels overburdened by style or artifice.
Marie Antoinette is, like Coppola’s previous two films (The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, both personal favorites), a story of a young woman in isolation. The irony is always that she is loved and privileged, lonely in a gilded cage. So while an 18th Century period piece was hard to imagine for Sofia Coppola when the film was first announced, the historic and tragic figure of the murdered queen of France was an ideal fit.
However, period-piece films are almost always conservatively styled in terms of visuals, editing and, most of all, music. (Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon is in some ways - not musically though - an exception.) It’s particularly rare that one hears anything but classical music in such Merchant-Ivory-type films, and those few times someone is brave enough to try otherwise, it usually backfires.
In Marie Antoinette, Coppola makes the bold decision to incorporate lots of late-Seventies and early-Eighties new wave and post-punk music, with artists like Bow Wow Wow and New Order helping to illustrate the descent into luxurious escape Marie Antoinette underwent trying to escape the madness of Versailles palace court life. It’s initially jarring, but I’ve come to love the effect. And it makes sense: this is a film about a rampant teenager who wants to play and party, oblivious to the revolution coming until it's too late, then powerless to do anything about it, and then, in the end, braver than her husband. Of course, I’m biased about the music in Marie Antoinette, because I have always loved music from that period. I remember as a second or third-grader listening to “Magic 107”, FM station KMJK in Portland, with a DJ named something like Steve Naganuma playing a nightly top 5 at 9PM that routinely included in those times the likes of Duran Duran, Bow Wow Wow, and A Flock of Seagulls.
And Marie Antoinette’s opening credits feature Gang of Four’s, “Natural’s Not In It”, from one of my current top favorite albums, Entertainment!. That album and another of theirs, Solid Gold, represent some of the most pure, energetic and inspiring rock music I’ve ever listened to. I think I’ve listened to Entertainment! about five times in the last two or three days.
Last fall I happened to sit across from Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen at a dinner event during the Time Based Art Festival for visiting English video artist Sutapa Biswas (the two were college friends in Leeds). I didn’t know the band nearly as well then, just that they were a seminal post-punk/new wave band and that Entertainment! was a legendary record. If I ever have the chance to say so again in person, I’m going to testify to Allen what a truly brilliant record and band they created.
Music has always had a huge presence in Coppola’s films. First there was The Virgin Suicides, with the soundtrack composed by French pop band Air. The deep dreamy sounds of their music became an indispensable part of the movie, even though it was set in the 1970s and competed with a lot of rock-radio standards (like “Come Sail Away”) that were also part of the film. Somehow, Air’s contemporary material better captured the mood than the period music did. The whole movie felt like a dream in slow motion.
And then there’s Lost In Translation, which has become enough of a modern classic in its short life that I probably don’t need to tell you much about it. But rest assured I’m a big fan, whether it’s the Dolce Vita portrayal of Japan, a country I adore and have visited twice, or the film’s two lead performers. But the music is also superb, overseen mostly by My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields but with a variety of great music that becomes, if you’ll pardon the pun, instrumental in establishing the film’s mood.
When Lost In Translation came out I had the good fortune to interview Sofia Coppola for Salon by telephone. (In person would have been AOK as well, of course.) She was admittedly tired and not at her best after a long press tour, but she made some thoughtful comments. About the relationship in the film between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson’s characters, she said: “I wasn't thinking of making a May-December romance. But I did like the idea of these characters that were on the opposite ends of their lives, looking at these same kinds of issues. It really came from me looking back on my early 20s, and that kind of angst that had me in crisis.”
I also found this Q&A interesting:
Both Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides are about alienation from society, due in part to forms of unhealthy adoration. Is it reading too much to wonder if this comes from your own experience growing up around celebrity? Have you ever wished your last name wasn't Coppola?
Oh, that's interesting, I've never thought of that. There is always that kind of romantic sense of alienation that I think is interesting to me, but I can't tell you that because of my name I feel alienated. I can walk down the street and not be noticed. And so far, when somebody in public does tell me "I love your movie," that's nice.
It kind of seemed a little bit to me like she dodged the question, however unwittingly. I was thinking more about how her possible isolation as a child around adults and movie people might have contributed to her interest in dramatizing isolated characters as an adult – not whether she felt isolated now, but then.
Still, I feel an extra desire to stand up for Marie Antoinette considering some of the unkind reviews it got. It’s not a movie for everyone, however, and perhaps it’s better in the end for Sofia Coppola that the movie had a mixed fate or even was considered a disappointment in some circles. I’d rather see her operating just far enough outside of mainstream Hollywood to carve out a niche for herself without big box office expectations, to take chances as an artist as she’s done so far. A debut about five suicides in the same family? A romance with Bill Murray and a kid half his age? A period piece with new-wave music and Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI? There are so, so few great women directors in Hollywood and/or American film history, but Sophia is tops regardless of gender. In fact, as the title of that Salon piece indicated, she’s long been the Coppola Clan’s best director.