“The Coppola ideal is a young girl trapped in fustiness: she can be an object of voyeurism without a trace of lewdness, and remain spiritually intact even when accessorized.”
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) is as creative and original as a fashion shoot — which is to say very, judging by the standards of Vogue. Right now, fashion is more consistently ingenious than film — its storylines are tighter, the range of references more unexpected. Look at US Vogue‘s recent tribute to The Wizard of Oz (1939), styled by the great Grace Coddington: a parade of stunning, macabre images of artists Kara Walker and Francesco Clemente, which ends with a shot of Chuck Close unveiled as the Great Pretender. The quoting of wondrous lines (“We hear he is a whiz of a wiz/If ever a wiz there was”) within the stern typescript, the fearsome depictions of the tornado and winged monkey, and finally the image of a decaying and haunted Close, surrounded by puffs of green smoke, are magnificently conceived. It might be dismaying to admit, but this layout was as moving and magical as any film of the last year.
Of course, the fact that Dorothy (Keira Knightley) happens to be wearing several of the season’s dresses could be seen as either a coup, or a necessary evil. This is a moment when fashion photography has developed its own, dazzlingly confident vocabulary. A paper cup tilted in the hand of a model gives an entire page a feeling of weightlessness; a suit of armor placed next to a figure causes us to re-etch the contours of the body. In Vogue, all shots come with witty and apt captions — as concise as headlines in The Economist — while a review of, say, a new accessories collection is indistinguishable from high art (“all the force of Giannini’s talent compressed into four inches of bright sequence … the flower, Giannini’s latest derivation from her talismanic Flora print.”1 ) Last year, the magazine even had the audacity to stage an homage to Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), turning that film’s critique of passivity into a glamorously neutral code of dressing. In this shoot, Coddington managed to create an aesthetics of frigidity, emphasizing the blank stare of the model and her disconnection with her partner. It’s almost as if there’s no subject, no mood which can’t be converted into a desirable “aura” — whether it’s apathy, or asexuality. That fashion has mastered not only film but politics is evident in what must be the designer feat of the decade: the PETA Coat. This is an enormous mink jacket, intended to bait spray-painting activists for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.) However, it is dyed from top to bottom in electric graffiti colors, creating not only a spectacular garment, but one invulnerable to attack. Protestors are invited to get out their paint cans, but the coat turns their arguments into just another layer of noise. Angry comments merely decorate the surface of the coat, enhancing its multi-colored design. It’s a diabolical object, in that it turns good will on its head: political correctness becomes a game of Othello, in which the meaning of one’s actions is flipped and reversed.
Marie Antoinette doesn’t have the level of imagination of either the Wizard of Oz shoot, or the PETA coat. Nevertheless, it’s a striking and consistently thought-out set of images: in other words, a fashion “story.” In fashion, a “story” refers to the visual theme of a shoot: a photographer and stylist come up with a scenario, locations and casting, and maybe a couple of unlikely reference points. Though it might seem trifling, even elements that are off-camera — the soundtrack and fragrance, for instance — are planned to sustain the mood. Coppola’s film has the tone and basic aims of a fashion story. It has a meticulously planned look, which balances cohesive and jarring elements. It has an array of “influences,” although its main inspiration appears to be the videos of ’80s British bands: the powdered fops and duchesses of a New Wave clip. Coppola’s is a carefully styled version of New Romance: a kind of English burlesque where people get dressed up but never look staid, mainly everyone is so young. There are enough tangential ideas thrown in to keep things interesting. From time to time, moody atmospherics are injected through a modern soundtrack — The Cure and Bow Wow Wow — while the cast list is self-consciously eclectic. Actors tend to be seen as cultural references rather than performers; there’s a group of classy stalwarts and eccentrics (Aurore Clement, Judy Davis), as well as a couple of incongruous names (Steve Coogan and Molly Shannon) whose presence signifies modern intentions, if nothing else. As the Austrian Empress, Marianne Faithfull is less of a character than a pop aristocrat, presiding over the disordered set of a film clip. Most of the film is devoted to women cooing over pretty things — jeweled cameos and pink sugar crystals — but even here Coppola shows a surprising amount of self-awareness. The director’s own image is at stake when we see Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) as a dilettante taking up artistic pursuits. The queen even has a “bohemian” phase, in which she switches to expensively simple and natural clothes — not unlike Coppola’s reputation as a fashionista.
There’s no doubt that Coppola creates a very rarefied mood, in which unusual music is matched with a specific era of design. Even the last shot, with the palace thrown into disarray, is an album cover. But is this the work of a director with vision, or a good stylist? Coppola has made a career out of mix-ups that sound interesting conceptually — Japan and ennui, royalty and pop — but is there anything beyond the excitement of the initial disconnect? She invents themes which seem intriguing on a production level, but these are rarely followed through, and in my opinion, don’t add up to a film.Marie Antoinette is a less frustrating film than Lost in Translation (2003), in that frivolity is its actual subject, but both movies are odes to pop set against blurry backgrounds. Each film has a mysterious or unexpected setting, with a precedent in music videos. However, in Lost in Translation, Coppola isn’t much interested in Japan, other than as a stylist’s backdrop. The Japanese exist only to inspire deadpan reaction shots from Bill Murray — but as Murray showed in Groundhog Day (1993), one doesn’t need to go to Japan to get a sea of unresponsive faces. Japan merely provides a color scheme, and an opportunity to take neon stills, in the way that a blue-screen Tokyo might be used in a fashion shoot. Like the Versailles of Marie Antoinette, its ceremonies are viewed ironically, by a privileged figure.
When it comes to her protagonists, Coppola also has distinct visual preferences. Her boys are limp youths — figures of sexless sensitivity, like Prada models (elongated, they remind me of white asparagus.) Her central female is girlish and untouched, in a way that’s very close to advertising — in the opening shot of Scarlett Johansson’s panties in Translation, my first thought was: Calvin Klein. This girl tends to be slightly feline, airy rather than vague, and beautifully presented — in this sense, Kate Moss in Coppola’s White Stripes video is a more perfect example than either Dunst or Johansson.2 It will be interesting to see if Coppola’s heroines ever age, given the merciless treatment of Kathleen Turner in The Virgin Suicides (1999) and the haranguing voice of Bill Murray’s wife in Translation. The Coppola ideal is a young girl trapped in fustiness: she can be an object of voyeurism without a trace of lewdness, and remain spiritually intact even when accessorized.
If there’s an actress who could bring this impossible combination to life, it’s Kirsten Dunst. In half a dozen films, Dunst has been able to show us the charm of giddy high spirits, as well as the underlying anxiety. However, in Marie Antoinette, she’s implacable; Dunst has never seemed more remote than in her two films for Coppola.Marie Antoinette makes us long for the smashed palace at the end: something to break through its stylish sensibility. What the film needed was a performance which exposed self-involvement, while letting us feel immersed and attracted by it.
That Dunst had the ability to pull off such a role can be seen in her previous films — she came closer to Marie Antoinette with her flighty, touchingly young Marion Davies in The Cat’s Meow (2001). She has also given the best interpretation of a Charlie Kaufman character, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). For a man whose plots run with ideas, Kaufman’s scripts seem to attract unusually stiff acting. The leads in his films tend to be either numb (Nicolas Cage, Jim Carrey), or pleasantly formal (Meryl Streep, Catherine Keener, Tilda Swinton.) In Streep’s case, the technical approach is understandable. With her roles in Adaptation (2002) and the Farrellys’ Stuck on You (2003), Streep seems to have become almost a signifier of professional acting; no longer a strictly “representational” actor, she becomes an exciting casting possibility. Directors seem taken with the idea of using “the greatest actress of all time” in a trivial part — relying on her to give depth and shading to lightness. Casting Streep is a way to fill out a corner of a film: with a super-stylized version of a psychologist/cult writer/fashion editor. However, in Adaptation, Streep’s performance is too careful and steady: she doesn’t embrace the comic potential of inhabiting a fiction within a fiction. In Being John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz doesn’t make the most of being in a cage, nor does Catherine Keener convey the full exhilaration of meeting in the body of Malkovich. Even Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine squanders some of the best Kaufman lines: for instance, “Hide me in your humiliation.” Clementine could have been a classic screwball role — one in a long line of comic amnesiac women. There could have been a painful but consistent humor in her seeming not to recognize Jim Carrey; her wit could have hurt him, and us. The script works on so many levels it demands the skills of a Stanwyck: Clementine is a blithe girl keeping company with an impossible man — a happily forgetful woman with a tearing emotional streak underneath.
Only Dunst grasps the intrinsic weirdness of the film’s device — and she plays to it again and again. While staying in character, Dunst never forgets the incredible situation that frames her: that she’s an amnesiac working in a lab that deletes memories from minds. Carrey and Winslet seem to think the premise carries itself, and the other actors are po-faced, but Dunst goofs off. She hurls herself around, tripping over the brain-melding equipment and slumping over comatose bodies, in the manner of a chronic camp artist. One critic remarked that she was like Mary Pickford come back to life,3 and that’s apt: she’s a child-faced actor with extraordinary instincts when it comes to both playfulness and drama. The most emotional moment in Kaufman occurs when we realize that this “free spirit” is a girl who has repeatedly erased pain from her mind, but keeps encountering it freshly, crying out in anguish each time.
Yet, like Pickford, Dunst tends to be starry rather than naturalistic: there is something distinctly nostalgic about her presence. It may not be a coincidence that her best scenes so far have been acted in front of mirrors: waving a silvery dress in front of her reflection in The Cat’s Meow, hamming for publicity shots in Spider-Man (2002), and vamping before the light-bulbs in Spider-Man 2 (2004). Her shots look like stills from silents; she has the pallor of another era — as seen in The Cat’s Meow, where she’s a very young girl protective of the womanizing Chaplin, and in Interview with the Vampire (1994), as the poor child crying in dismay. Early on, she seemed like a throwback to the ’30s, with the weariness of a child put through the star system: as a fastidious kid in Little Women (1994), and the strange, starched little doll in Vampire. As an adult, Dunst has oddly internalized the spirit of the flapper in nearly all her roles — even in teen movies. In Bring It On (2000), her character seemed less like a cheerleader than a starlet — it was as if a teen girl could really be that spirited, yet the ego was never disguised.
I was interested to read that Dunst felt Gwyneth Paltrow’s interpretation of Sylvia Plath was incorrect. According to her, Sylvia (2003) failed because Plath was “a girl who wanted to hurt. She wanted to feel terrible…I felt like, in the movie, it was more like, ‘I’m the victim!’ It should have been more that she liked to create all this shit in her head. She was crazier.”4 So many biopics seem frightened of exposing their subjects’ self-involvement, or of disrupting the fantasy of genius. A rigorous examination of motive would be needed to play the part Dunst has often talked about: Jean Seberg. The early Seberg — a girl drawn quickly into sophistication — is something a dozen actresses could take on. However, the later history requires a more complex approach. As the adult Seberg — a woman who wanted to hurt and did hurt — an actor would have to acknowledge a tendency towards drama, without losing sympathy for the character. The film might also address the subject’s concerns with image, turning from a waif into a mature woman: letting us see the vanity as well as the intensity. It’s a role that needs an actress like Dunst, unwilling to settle for the myth and look — but maybe not a director like Coppola.
- Sarah Mower, “The New Gucci,” Vogue, 195:12 (2005), 186. [↩]
- As an instance of “girlie” art, I find the video for Kylie Minogue’s “Chocolate” much more beautiful and suggestive of an interior female world than Coppola’s work. Like Coppola, British sculptor-turned-director Dawn Shadforth creates a look assembled from obvious references (Robert Altman among them), but she also has a remarkably close feeling for bodies and textures — particularly outstretched arms and backs — and isn’t afraid to cut according to the climax of the song. It’s a rapturous piece of film — how many videos aim to be “hypnotic” these days? [↩]
- Stephanie Bunbury, “Little Miss Imperfect,”The Age, October 30 2005 [↩]
- Agencies, “I Would Have Been Better than Gwyneth: Dunst,”Sydney Morning Herald, March 9 2004 [↩]