Let Them Eat Popcorn!
The art houses have turned themselves over to not just one but two movies about European monarchies. Stephen Frears’ The Queen and Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette both look behind the royal curtain into the everyday lives of women of extraordinary privilege. Though the Queens in question are very different in attitude, they make the same mistake in not trying to understand the subjects they rule and, in so doing, nearly destroy the monarchies that they were supposed to nurture.
Of the two, The Queen is more accessible and, some would say, more successful. Helen Mirren plays England’s Queen Elizabeth II, reigning over a country that has given political power to its parliament but maintains its monarchy out of a sense of pride and perhaps nostalgia. If the shift to irrelevance has been gradual over her 50+ years as the Queen of England, the perception came to a head after the death of Princess Diana, “the People’s Princess.”
In a role that could have come across as cold and would have run counter to the movie’s eventual message, Mirren gives a stunning performance of the type that normally wins an Oscar nomination. She somehow manages to show the human side of a woman who believes her public persona should reflect a strict adherence to the pomp and circumstance of her position. Meanwhile, a young Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has become Prime Minister by playing off of his ability to speak to the populace, a lesson the Queen should learn but doesn’t want to. When she finally starts to notice the people taking an active dislike to her refusal to mourn Princess Diana (who was already out of the royal family and therefore irrelevant), she begrudgingly starts to take the advice of the popular Prime Minister in listening to and acknowledging the grief of her subjects. It not only saves the monarchy, but shows personal growth too.
Meanwhile, over in 18th Century France, Marie Antoinette follows the story of an Austrian Archduchess who is married off to the future King of France at age 14, soon to become Queen. Directed by Sophia Coppola, heir apparent to the Coppola filmmaking kingdom (unless brother Roman finally makes a follow-up to his underrated CQ), the movie has little interest in politics or history. Instead, Ms. Coppola has crafted a coming-of-age story about an upper-class woman who lives in a prison of societal boundaries and etiquette rules, without the confines of monetary limits. Some have suspected that the movie is autobiographical, about her desire to break out of the indulgent laziness of her gilded cage, just like Lost in Translation reflected her dissatisfaction in her marriage to director Spike Jonze and prophesized their divorce, but through all the period detail it’s hard to find an objective parallel between this movie and her life.
I have to admit, however, it is incredibly difficult to identify with the plight of the young Marie Antoinette, considering how arranged marriages have gone out of style and how foreign the customs of the French royals seem to us now. But if you consider moving from the Austrian court to the French court as a move from one high school to another, then the spirit of the movie makes more sense, at least in the first half or so. At first it seems like the movie is going to be about how the young Queen adapts to and overcomes the strange rituals of Versailles, which gives her a definite underdog vibe. But as she settles into being Queen and starts to take the rituals and privileges for granted, that underdog aspect falls away and it becomes harder and harder to identify with her, or even care at all about her.
Just as Marie Antoinette never really considered the plight of her subjects until they showed up as a mob to capture and behead her, so too does it seem like Ms. Coppola never considered her audience and instead indulged in the creation of whatever images and pseudo-autobiographical situations that she could think of, audience be damned. She ended up capturing lovely and engrossing visuals, but with a pace that is slow and observant, which of course led to a mob of critics to call for her own cinematical beheading. In The Queen, Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth sees the error in ignoring public opinion and changes her attitude, leading to a happy ending, the survival of the monarchy, and nearly universal positive reviews. In Marie Antoinette, Kirsten Dunst’s Queen of France never apologizes for her actions or appetites, and ends up with her head on the chopping block, and this divided critics into love-it or hate-it camps.
The Queen is a very good movie, solid and satisfying and well worth seeing. On the other hand, Marie Antoinette may not be as good for you, as it is lighter and full of sweet visuals with little more than spongy substance underneath. Here’s the kicker. Though I think The Queen is a better movie, what with that British struggle against repression, Marie Antoinette is the movie I crave to see a second time.