Written and directed by Academy Award winner Sofia Coppola (2003, Best Writing, Lost In Translation), Marie Antoinette is an electrifying yet intimate re-telling of the turbulent life of history's favorite villainess. Kirsten Dunst portrays the ill-fated child princess who married France's young and indifferent King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). Feeling isolated in a royal court rife with scandal and intrigue, Marie Antoinette defied both royalty and commoner by living like a rock star, which served only to seal her fate.
Sophia Coppola is a love-or-hate filmmaker – but the nice thing about her work is that while you may dislike one of her pictures, you may love another. For example, I cannot stand 'Somewhere,' but I absolutely love 'Marie Antoinette.' Even though she's made bad films, they're not all consistently bad. Coppola has the tendency to stray into the meandering territory that Terrence Malick monopolizes; however, 'Marie Antoinette' contains a perfect blend of narrative and Malick-ness, making it, arguably, her best film to date.
Whether the iconic stories of Marie Antoinette are true or not – for example, the "let them eat cake" line and the frivolous spending – Coppola's film tells the young queen's tale in an intimate and personally relatable way. She's not just some out-of-touch royal figure. She's a young girl who, despite her family's money and wellbeing, never had it easy. While Coppola carries the sole writing credits, Antonia Fraser's biography 'Marie Antoinette: The Journey' heavily influenced the perspective from which the queen is portrayed. Who knows how historically accurate this point-of-view is, but it certainly makes for an interesting film that can be sypathized with by almost everyone.
For the most part, until her recent appearance in the second season of 'Fargo,' Kirsten Dunst has had a bad rap as an actress. I argue that her role as Marie Antoinette is just as strong as that in 'Fargo.' From the opening scene in the film, she makes you understand exactly where her character comes from.
The story starts in Austria in 1768. At the age of 15, Marie Antoinette is betrothed to the Dauphine of France, the future king Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), with the hopes of building a strong political bond between France and Austria. Don't let her tight, buttoned-up period piece attire fool you. She's made out to be like an innocent, naïve and childish 15-year-old from modern days. She giggles. She adores her puppy. The last thing she's ready to do is get married, become an Arch Duchess, be thrown into politics and, before too long, become the queen of France. While all of that is obviously overwhelming, as is with most 15-year-old girls, the one that carries the most weight in her mind is that which involves a cute royal male of the opposite sex.
Nothing about Marie Antoinette's new life is easy. She's thrown from the comfortable lifestyle of a teenager to that of rigid structure and constant scrutiny. For example, she can't physically reach for anything; everything must be handed to her. She can't pull her bed's covering over herself, let alone dress herself after a bath without a full staff there to do it for her. Her life no longer belongs to herself. Leaving everything behind, including her fancy puppy, she now belongs to the royal family. But as annoying as this lifestyle may be, having a cute and noble husband that fulfills his husbandly duty is enough to make it worthwhile – only he doesn't. Days, weeks, months and even years pass before her awkward, disconnected and unaffectionate spouse can muster the courage to consummate the marriage. With all of France aware of their lack of intimacy, she's embarassed and humiliated. Through that trying and difficult period, with a loss of self-esteem and happiness, she slips into a depressive state that can only be waived away through intentional selfishness. Fashion, parties, food and newfound friends – these bring her the temporary happiness that allow her to keep up appearances.
Marie Antoinette is a very sypathetic character. From beginning to end, the motivations for all of her actions are completely comprehendable – even the unsavory ones. According the her history as described in this film, you'll see that she wasn't the terrible figure that the history books would lead you to believe. Instead, you'll see her as a victim of circumstance, a depressed young lady who did whatever she could to find happiness within her damning reality. The Coppola-Dunst combination works perfectly. Only making the film even better is the atypical decision to score the film with a mix of historical compositions and a slew of '80s new wave tracks. Miraculously, it works! Coppola's Malickian moments kick in at the start of the third act, but the music choices keep it from meandering into la-la land Malick's most recent films.
While the merits of Coppola's films may be up for discussion, the strength of 'Marie Antoinette' is almost uncontestable. It's a beautiful picture that's well-worth sinking into.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Marie Antoinette' is one of Sony's first discs to appear under their Choice Collection. What does that mean? It means that it's not at all like a traditional catalog release. They haven't remasted the film, nor have they pressed it for mass distribution. Sadly, the result is unpleasant.
If you want to add 'Marie Antoinette' to your library, you can only purchase it from Amazon (at least, in North America), the reason being that the disc is part of Sony's first wave of MOD releases – Manufactured on Demand. That means that when you purchase the disc, Amazon with first need to burn the film onto a 25-gig BD-R before shipping it to you. The result is a cheap-looking disc with a shorter lifespan than the standard pressed Blu-ray discs that aren't manufactured on demand. It's reported that BD-R discs won't even play in Playstation 4 consoles, so if that's your only Blu-ray player, don't even think about buying this.
The disc itself is housed in a fat blue keepcase that's unlike any other I've seen. Manufactured by Scanavo, it doesn't have the iconic Blu-ray logo on the top center of the front; instead, it features the giant, ugly "Blu-ray DiscTM" in its place. Click here and here to see what I mean.
The icing on this piece of cake is the cost of the disc, which is currently ringing up at $26.99. If you think these details about Sony's Choice Collection are a drag, just wait until you read about the video quality.
This disc does not feature a main menu. In it's place, it only carries a pop-up menu with special features (since no audio or subtitle options are available). Following Sony Home Entertainment, MPAA and FBI warning reels, the movie automaticals plays.
Think back 10 years. Do you remember the first wave of catalog titles to hit Blu-ray? Do you remember how the studios didn't bother to remaster most of them? I recall popping in 'The Fugitive' for the first time. The exact same flaws that riddled the DVD showed up in the Blu-ray. Fortunately, Warner Bros. later remastered it for a fantastic '20th Anniversary Edition' - but Sony didn't bother remastering 'Marie Antoinette' for this Choice Collection release. Instead, you're getting the same flawed video presentation of the DVD. Sony is taking a step 10 years into the past with their new manufactured on demand process.
There isn't a single sharp or fine line to be found in the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of 'Marie Antoinette.' Everything carries the unfocused blur of non-HD video. Because no artificial sharpening tool was used, sharpeness is nowhere to be found. Some shots are so soft that they appear to be out of focus. No bands, aliasing or artifacts appear because the image is never sharp enough to warrant them. Considering the film earned the Oscar for Best Costume, the lack of definition is especially sad since the meticulous details of the costuming cannot be observed.
A slight shakiness can be seen throughout the entire film. Scratches and debris noticeably show up from time to time. White specks appear sporadically. There's even a single long-lasting instance of a faint vertical run down the center of the print around the 1:07:10 mark.
Despite the DVD-like quality, one aspect appears strongly: the film's colorization. Pastels are basically dulled down colors. With a highly pastel palette, the need for HD vibrancy isn't there. Instead, the pastels appear naturally. The gorgeous cinematography uses a lot of natural lighting, which also comes across gorgeously on the Blu-ray.
The most frustrating aspect of this release is that 'Marie Antoinette' hit DVD after Blu-ray was already the sheer winner of the high-def battle against HD-DVD. Why Sony didn't just release a pristine Blu-ray disc back then is beyond me. To pump out this lazy release 10 years later is insulting.
The only somewhat strong aspect of this Blu-ray is the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. It isn't always magnificently mixed, but there are definitely some noteworthy moments within it.
The '80s music is one of the best sounding and well-spread elements in this mix. It delightfully pops around the room and boosts the environmental tone and mood of the film. Unfortunately, at the same time, it can also bring a slight hinderance to the rest of the mix.
The dialog and effects are almost always front-based – at least, they appear to be. The music is given the most attention in this mix, meaning that its levels are higher than those of the dialog and effects. Even if a setting is filled with a violent hoard of people, the ambient chit-chat and ruckus seem to solely emit from the front channels because the music overpowers everything else in the surround channels. When the music isn't present, the strength of the surround mixing of the dialog and effects shines through. Walks through the gardens of Versailles are accompanied by chirping birds all around. The sound of water splashing in fountains is appropriately mixed within the space. When a baby is born, the church bells are rung. The ringing starts in one channel and seamlessly echoes throughout the others. And when the mob storms Versailles, from a dining area far away from the breach, sounds of loud thumps and glass breaking can be heard echoing throughout the surround channels.
The mix isn't always level, but when the music is toned down, it allows for the other elements to do their job.
With the exception of the film's great trailers, all of the special features from the DVD release have been brought over to the Blu-ray in their previous standard-def resolution.
'Marie Antoinette' is my personal favorite of Sophia Coppola's films. Not only is it very well crafted in terms of scripting, cinematography, acting and music, but it's an intimate tale that wholly makes you connect with its central character. It's a beautiful film that demands to be seen in the best presentation possible, which is what makes this Blu-ray release a tragedy of its own. The audio has been upgraded to a lossless, albeit messy mix here, but the video quality has been untouched. If you own the old DVD release of 'Marie Antoinette,' instead of purchasing this overpriced half-assed Blu-ray release, just toss the disc into your upconverting Blu-ray player, because that's basically all you're getting here. Shame on Sony for promoting overly-expensive manufacted-on-demand BD-R garbage.