Never mind the Bastille, here's a sexy picture
Style and hedonism trump history in Sofia Coppola's flawed biopic
Marie Antoinette (12A)
The opening titles of Marie Antoinette are in the garish font that graces the cover of the Sex Pistols' debut album. Sure enough, what follows is a case of never mind the history books. As played by Kirsten Dunst, Marie-Antoinette has purple Converses in her wardrobe and electric guitars in her head. Most of the film plays like a pop-culture pantomime for teenage girls, with its emphasis on dazzling costumes and decadent parties. But the picture falls unhappily between two stools whenever its writer-director, Sofia Coppola, tries to square her candy-floss fantasy with the usual demands of costume drama.
Coppola's previous film, Lost in Translation (2003), was sharpest when evoking the loneliness of the long-distance traveller, and it seems at first that this will be one of the strengths of Marie Antoinette. The camera shows, in painstaking detail, a coach journey transporting the future queen to Versailles in 1770 - all the better to convey the boredom and isolation that she experiences. Her marriage to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) is fruitless until her brother, the Emperor Joseph (Danny Huston), tells the king-to-be about the birds and the bees - or, in this case, the locks and the keys. When the couple's first daughter is out of infancy, she proves to be a genius - it is quite an achievement, after all, for a child to speak flawless French when everyone around is conversing in American English.
The queen finds herself more emotionally isolated than ever as popular opinion turns against her profligate lifestyle, but Coppola, working from Antonia Fraser's biography Marie-Antoinette: the journey, is defeated by this downward trend in her heroine's fortunes. When the hedonism peters out, so does the film; Coppola seems to lose her grip on the woman, and the audience, once the chips are down.
When she keeps the tone breezy, the material has a pleasing clarity: watching Dunst being ravished by a Swedish count to "Kings of the Wild Frontier" by Adam and the Ants, it is hard to suppress the feeling that this is the sort of spectacle for which cinema was invented. Then suddenly someone will burst in and announce, "Your Majesty, an angry mob has stormed the Bastille!" and you wonder why Coppola is bothering with reality at all if she's going to be so cursory about it.
Gallic style is put to more purposeful use in I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, a thriller based on real events surrounding the presumed murder of the Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965, allegedly at the hands of the Moroccan secret service in collusion with the French police - "the world's best-kept state secret", according to this film. Unfamiliar events are moulded into lively entertainment. Characters stalk the streets of Paris in matching scowls and raincoats, arranging clandestine midnight meetings on the banks of the Seine, or in smoky jazz dives.
Georges Figon (Charles Berling), an ex-con trying to make it as a producer, is approached by the Moroccan secret service to oversee a documentary about decolonisation; the script is to be written by Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko), and the legendary Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre éaud) will take the director's chair. The main attraction, however, is the involvement of Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian) as the project consultant. For Figon, it represents an opportunity to swap his shady reputation for respect and riches. What he doesn't realise is that his merciless financiers have in mind a rather literal interpretation of the phrase "final cut" for Barka.
The film has an alluringly ironic surface, with its Sunset Boulevard-style posthumous voice-over by Figon, whom we first meet lying in a pool of blood. But beneath that is a sense of outrage all the more potent for being held in check, not least in the scene which reveals what Figon saw, and heard, when Ben Barka got killed.
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