Monday, December 10, 2012

Before the Words

            I watched Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette back in November.  I was so taken I actually bought it (something that almost never happens) and re-watched the movie.  There are many things to love about Coppola's work in this film, but chief among them, I think, is her ability to tell a story "before" a script.
            What I mean by this is that most filmmakers need the script in order to tell the story.  I'm sure if you watched most movies with the sound off, you would understand the story arc fairly well (we will exclude super-artsy Criterion Collection-type stuff for the moment).  But this is for two reasons which are not flattering to filmmakers:  one, we are visual creatures and love images; and two, there are only a few stories that keep getting retold, and even fewer in American movies, so as long as they didn't tell a completely nonsense tale, we'll get the gist of what happened.
            Coppola offers far more in Marie Antoinette.  Before the words (and I'm drawing a distinction between "script," which I think of as the whole conceptual storyline, and spoken words or lines), there is Coppola's movie.  There is Marie Antoinette, her eternal boredom and cluelessness, both of which she was clearly bred up for.  There is the fumbling and blandly endearing Louis XVI.  Marie's sexual frustration at the inept hands of her husband, and eventual passion with Count Fersen.  The necessity of producing a male heir, and her social stigmatization up until that feat was accomplished.  And of course, court politics assert themselves over and over again, far more, in fact, than the actual politics of France.
            "The problem of leisure / What to do for pleasure."  In the opening of the film, Gang of Four's lyrics tell you quite clearly the central problem of Marie's life.  It sounds like a joke problem — "Oh, how awful for you dear, so much money and no idea how to spend it" — but by the end of the film her life looked miserable to me, and not because of how it ended.  As in Lost in Translation, there are long, beautiful scenes which might very well lack words altogether, and Coppola has told you the story perfectly.
            It's been a long time since I saw it, but in Visions of Light: the Art of Cinematography, I remember some discussion about the ability to tell a story without words, before talkies came along.  Coppola, of course, doesn't deserve sole credit; Lance Acord, her cinematographer for both Marie Antoinette and Lost in Translation has a not-too-shabby list of credits to his name as well.  But I guess the point I want to make is that Coppola gives us a whole piece.  Not just a bunch of actors acting; not just a bunch of well-put-together scenes; and not even just a bunch of pretty pictures.  Her movies — from their soundtracks to their acting, from their cinematography to their lines, and even the post-production decisions — are of a piece.  One, lovely, consistent whole.


  1. I finally saw this, and loved it. I think she's a much better director than her dad. Her films have this relaxed pacing, like Wes Anderson without the comedy, that you'd think would run the risk of dragging, but there is always something happening. And the visual sense, OMG. And the sheer bravery of imposing modern (well, 1980s new wave) music on a costume drama. And that pair of Converse high-tops in the elaborate shoe selection scene. I thought it was delightful, and really, really impressive.

  2. I also love that Coppola continues to make movies that consistently look *terrible* to me. Seriously: "The Bling Ring"? But at this point, I take her on faith. All of the movies I've seen so far - "Virgin Suicides," "Lost in Translation," and "Marie Antoinette" - looked weird and unappealing. I've loved every one of them so far, so I think I'll be giving this one a chance. Also, Emma Watson kicks ass.