Let Them Eat High Speed Rail
Might it be that an explanation so overused and sublime as "simply before its time" resolves the four and a half year paradox that is an almost universal scorn and abject loathing- or at the very least the most divided critical response in recent or distant memory- for Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette"? Booed during and after its first screenings at Cannes (though ironically during a standing ovation following the second screening) and subjected to almost withering criticism thereafter, Coppola's third and final picture in her sequential exploration of estrogen induced ennui could not but disappoint in the wake of a string of films that anointed Coppola as a third-generation Oscar laureate (though thankfully not for her acting) and the third ever female "best director" nominee.
The likes of Richard Roeper of the long-running Ebert & Someguy...
...it's very pretty and occasionally amusing but also dreadfully dull for long, long stretches...
...Susan Walker of the Toronto Star...
...the director squanders a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to film on the grounds and inside the Palace of Versailles. It's the trappings we get, in richly reproduced costumes and all-over gilt furniture...
...Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News...
...Dunst plays Marie Antoinette as if she's seen the future and it's Paris Hilton...
...or Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press...
...although it is purposely devoid of substance, it is still devoid of substance...
...clearly had higher expectations.
One can perhaps understand the longing thirst for substance that lingered for the duration of International Asperger's Year. Despite marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart, in the United States two years remained in the 43rd presidency and the Writers Guild of America Strike wouldn't be for another 13 months. But even these pressures on the muses of Coppola creation, these demands for the concrete seem excessive in the shadow of a deeper look into the refined (if subtle) zeitgeist exposition that is Marie.
Not only do the seven minutes and five seconds between 1:03:31 and 1:10:36 present the astute finem respice film enthusiast with one of the most poignant and cutting cinematic summations of the not quite post-adolescent mid-to-late 1980s experience, but the simply unparalleled sound engineering and musical mix that spans the segment bears the dual distinction of "most perfectly set instance of 'Ceremony'" and "best side-by-side The Cure-New 'Joy Division' Order arrangement".
The siamese-twined audio progression from light clock bells (left channel, 1:03:31) to distant church bells (right and then both channels 1:03:34, 1:03:46, 1:03:57, 1:04:08) to the bell windchimes (1:04:21) that set the absorbed listener up for the perfect seduction, right into the waiting arms of the abrupt and haunting cymbal crash (1:04:38), wash contexted lead synth, and mercilessly languid chant that is The Cure's Plainsong-1 and/or the inexorably slow push into the deeply contemplative visage of Kirsten Dunst, head cocked, lost in an oblivion of ceremonial significance, or perhaps a cultivated, haughty species of boredom, on the occasion of her husband's coronation (long live the king!)
The piece misses not a beat before a seamless transition into that Joy Division expatriate now permanent New Order resident "Ceremony" with such fleeting roots in Ian Curtis that the only known performance recording of the work with him in it is from the May 2, 1980 Birmingham University concert that predated Curtis' self-induced embrace of the infinite by a mere two weeks.2
Post-punk and (fittingly) before its time, Ceremony montages on into the never-ending summer club-hop that was an era defined by the audio accessibility cheap turntables, mixing boards and a newly emerging and deathly bored, suburban 16-22 set would create, ride fiercely and, drinks in hand, parents' car deftly (if illegally) parked, and coke dealer in tow (the always observant finem respice reader will easily catch a brilliantly integrated flash of snuff [coke] at 1:06:39) eventually violently exsanguinate between 1985 and 1995.
It is likely only a mild exaggeration to suppose that, listening to Ceremony, no self-respecting Gen-Xer could fail to call forth from the dusty annals of memory a late summer's night drive at speed- top down, significant other (or at least temporary proxy therefor) astride- through the desolate suburbs that blighted that sprawling and far too long expanse between club and fuck. Small wonder that neo-prohibitionist Mothers Against Drunk Driving found its origins in the summer of 1980.3
So carries Ceremony, on and on, moveable feast dragging its captives to the sunrise, prompting the toast "To the new day.." (and the riposte: "...and the next one.") before cruelly granting the toastmaster's wish, albeit with the wakeful shock of the late morning sun and Squarepusher's Tomib Help Buss (1:09:06) announcing the late 1990s, the headache's onset and, finally, the drab return of reality, life and the ennui it incubates.
Simply obvious, one supposes, that the likes of Richard Roeper, himself of that E-Meter (read: ego-meter) employing, baby boomer cult that is so enamored of its cultural significance so as to take to naming future generations after sequential letters occupying the tail end of the alphabet, found little to recommend the experience (Coppola was, one notices, born in 1971) to the world.4
But these details aside, there is a real case to be made that, released today, Marie Antoinette might enjoy a much changed reception. Manohla Dargis, the Village Voice anointed boomer and present New York Times "chief film critic"- one is prompted to imagine an aboriginal tribe of film critics occupying a cluster of mud-caked sweat lodges on the twenty sixth floor of 40th and Eighth, wrapped in the stench of rotting animal skins (the spirit guides are demanding, you realize, vengeful and ever watchful) and growing hallucinogenic cacti in the warm and moist recesses of the HVAC ducting under the building's raised floors, Renzo Piano would be horrified- highlights almost perfectly the dynamic that makes this certain.
On the one hand, the always crotchety finem respice reader has to appreciate Dargis' liberal use of bitter disillusionment ("Crash as best picture? What the fuck.")5 to demand more of Hollywood. To wit, her musings on the bacteria-laden, carny cotton-candy sideshow that is modern romantic comedy production:
One, the people making them have no fucking taste, two, they're morons, three they're insulting panderers who think they're making movies for the great unwashed and that's what they want.6
Byron she ain't.
In this unfortunate connection, Dargis' is possessed of a seemingly limitless quantity of ignorance of a degree matched only by the endless supply of her willingness not only to display it, but publish it in "the paper of record." Of Marie Antoinette's 2006 Cannes showing she asserted:
The princess lived in a bubble, and it's from inside that bubble Ms. Coppola tells her story. Thus, despite some lines about the American Revolution, which is helping drain the king's coffers and starve his people, Ms. Coppola ignores what's best about Marie Antoinette's story.
She doesn't seem to realize that what made this spoiled, rotten woman worthy of attention weren't her garden parties and fur-lined shoes, but the role she played in a bloody historical convulsion.
Ms. Coppola has an embarrassment of cinematic riches to play with, including the real Versailles, where Marie Antoinette lived most of her short adult life. With the help of the cinematographer Lance Acord and the production designer KK Barrett, both of whom worked on Ms. Coppola's last film, "Lost in Translation," and the costume designer Milena Canonero, who worked on "Barry Lyndon," she creates an opulent proto-Euro Disney cum rave where royals are really just 24-hour party people, full of fun and lots of cake. Soon after arriving at court Marie Antoinette asks a lady-in-waiting (Judy Davis in full twitch), "Isn't all this kind of ridiculous?" "This, madam," the woman answers haughtily, "is Versailles." But truly, madam, this is Hollywood.7
In other circumstances, Dargis might be forgiven. After all, the record of the faithful years between 1782 and Antoinette's execution in 1793 is still stained with the residue of propaganda and falsehood. And while occasionally, in the softening light of post-adolescence, as the anticipation of the starlight of middle age hardens, the weary finem respice reader might muse that it behooves a chief critic of the illustrious "Gray Lady," and particularly such chief critics as enjoy the soft-feminist reputation that cloaks Dargis, to educate and inform those erudite readers that doubtless occupy the top quartile of the English-speaking population, typically it takes only a few moments to recall that we are actually speaking of The New York Times. As if this shock were not enough, and as will soon become apparent, these are not "other circumstances."
As is the central purpose of all breeding stock, it fell to the Austrian Antoinette to issue forth the Dauphin of France, an effort eleven years in the making, an interminable delay in the eyes of the French court and one that earned her the scorn and disdain of a wide swath of her contemporaries irrespective of their social rank.
Antoinette's eventual marriage to the Dauphin of France was more accident than design. It was, in fact, the combination of the death of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1765, the elevation of his wife and Antoinette's mother Maria Theresa to the throne, a maze of alliances precipitated like condensation out of the morning cold of the Seven Years' War and several flares of smallpox to tear the mortal coil from Antoinette's sisters Maria Josepha and Maria Johanna, thus leaving Maria Theresa's youngest the only eligible bride to cement the Austro-Frankish alliance.
Lest one be tempted towards romanticism by the allure of a royal wedding (even an accidental one) and all its attendant circumstance it is prudent to remember the Dauphin as he was reported to Antoinette by the Austrian Ambassador to France:
Nature seems to have denied everything to Monsieur le dauphin. In his bearing and words, the prince displays a very limited amount of sense, great plainness and no sensitivity.8
Need we begin with "Let them eat cake," the scarlet sentence pinned to the very name of Antoinette and rallying cry of anti-aristocratic forces highlighting the obliviousness to famine displayed by the Queen of France? This despite the fact that no evidence exists to suggest she ever uttered anything solike and, in fact, the worn anecdote of a princess heard to mutter "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" on hearing that the peasants had no bread actually originates in Rousseau's Confessions, published before Antoinette was fourteen, and before she even arrived in France.9
Enfin je me rappelai le pis-aller d’une grande princesse à qui l’on disait que les paysans n’avaient pas de pain, et qui répondit : Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.
Finally I recalled the stopgap solution of a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread, and who responded: "Let them eat brioche."10
Of course, and though doubtless it matters little to contemporary leaders of thought (or aboriginal tribes of film critics), there were actually no famines during the reign of Louis XVI.
As an Austrian, Antoinette needed to do little to inspire the suspicion of the xenophobic and excitable French of the period. Despite being possessed of a vanishingly small amount of influence over her husband in matters of state, she was frequently seen as an agent of a foreign power, and the libelles of the day11 missed no opportunity to play on these fears with a cranky and idle public.
This, in particular, bears some discussion. The evolution of libellees between the early and late 1700s certainly enjoyed a far more critical part than any role this "spoiled, rotten woman... played in a bloody historical convulsion." The rise and increasingly bold development of these "little books" in the eighteenth century almost perfectly tracked the arc of counter-aristocratic revolution that culminated in French society's ravenous autosarcophagy, be it via the National Razor or (merely) the blind, mercurial rage of the French mob.
What began as the limited distribution of page-long screeds directed cautiously, even somewhat deferentially, against individuals evolved (or perhaps devolved) into works of many volumes attacking not just the King and his court, but the very fabric of monarchy as a political system.12
And why shouldn't we blame these numerous and nasty little purveyors of literary smut? This, dear readers, then brings us full circle.
After all, how could today's critical contemporaries not greet with relieved joy a hero's story of the wrongly maligned foreign princess, savaged by myriad, invented offenses circulated by unscrupulous pamphleteers, besieged by the blame for a ruinous debt actually spawned by the far more numerous and tone-deaf extended members of the royal family and a series of decidedly expensive foreign wars, closed in by a rebellious and revolutionary spirit at home and abroad, entirely too young and inexperienced to be expected to actually "rule" anything, but filled with the naive and ignorant hope of youth (and an inflated sense of self-importance that must be measured in AU).
While the plot might not match the fact set that plagues the current princess-occupant of the White House, it certainly rings the bell on the thickly fictional, Teflon coated narrative floating around just now with uncanny accuracy.
Given the current (and one might even say desperate) disposition of Le Dauphin's vassals and the beleaguered situation engulfing Pennsylvania Avenue's Versailles Nouveau, it could hardly surprise today if Antoinette was the first film to win a Nobel Prize.13 Someone better do something because it appears quite clear indeed that the Swiss Guards are sitting this one out.
- 1. Interestingly, from the latin cantus planus or "plain chant" for the monophonic style of chants used in Catholic liturgies c. 3 A.D.
- 2. Two other recordings appear to have survived, one from the Birmingham afternoon sound check, the other from a rehearsal recording a few weeks earlier. Before the New Order release of the song in March of 1981 the rehearsal recording had to be played repeatedly through heavy EQ passes with squint-eyed band members, poised with ears held up to studio monitors, straining to pull Curtis' ethereal vocals out enough to actually transcribe the lyrics.
- 3. MADD's founder, Candace Lynne "Candy" Lightner (you can't make this stuff up) abandoned the organization a mere five years after creating it, claiming it had gotten away from her and progressed into the leftist extremes of statist, social policy far beyond her intent. Of course, in the United States MADD continues to this day to represent the greatest single threat to the Bill of Rights since an anonymous soldier under the command of Douglas MacArthur during the occupation of Japan handed Yoshio Okada the sectional chocolate bar that inspired the creation of the box-cutter.
- 4. Though, to be fair, finem respice hardly qualifies as a bone fide member of the X-Generation either.
- 5. Carmon, Irin, "'Fuck Them': Times Critic on Hollywood, Women & Why Romantic Comedies Suck", Jezebel (December 14, 2009).
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Dargis, Manohla "Cannes Journal: 'Marie Antoinette': Best or Worst of Times?; Under the Spell of Royal Rituals", The New York Times (May 25, 2006).
- 8. Cadbury, Deborah, "The Lost King of France", St. Martin's Press (2002) p. 6.
- 9. Some commentators, including Lady Antonia Fraser, actually attribute the comment to Marie-Therese nearly 100 years earlier.
- 10. Rousseau, Jean-Jaques, "Confessions" (1782).
- 11. Today we call them "blogs."
- 12. Robert Darnton, sometime President of the American Historical Association, should be considered required reading for those finem respice readers possessed of sufficiently eccentric taste to enjoy attempts to merge information theory with tabloid and gossip distribution infrastructure in the daunting environment of mid-to-late 1700s in France. His American Historical Association Presidential Address in 1999 deftly and effortlessly transcends any expectations an information theorist could possibly harbor when presented with a speech purporting to examine the depths of a subject like French gossip.
- 13. Remember that animated PowerPoint presentations do not meet the Committee's definition of "film."