Marie Antoinette

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette



It’s tempting to look at writer/director Sofia Coppola’s biopic about Marie Antoinette as a coded self-portrait – young woman born into immense privilege, continuing in the family business, expected to have an understanding of the hoi polloi though with no experience thereof, allowed to indulge her whims, and so on.


Perhaps it’s a better film seen that way, because as a straightforward biopic it’s full of problems, chief of those being the inertia at the centre, where Kirsten Dunst’s Marie – the Austrian princess bought in by the French to produce an heir – and her spouse the Dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) sit like a pair of bland puddings while around them wheel a menagerie of exotic creatures. Rip Torn’s baritone adds fruitcake richness to his portrayal of King Louis XV, old but still full of priapic desire for his mistress, Mme Du Barry, played by Asia Argento with a look on her face like she’s got a boiler-room of naughtiness going on between her legs. There’s also Danny Huston, as Marie’s worldly wily older brother, drafted in to help the Dauphin work out what to do in the bedroom – the Dauphin might be gay, terminally inbred or just bored, who knows? And around them a court of looks and whispers. These exotics and intriguers apart, it’s a languid portrait of inert, disconnected people that at every turn threatens to become inert and disconnected itself. Coppola knows this, hence the ripeness of the supporting characters, hence the use of modern pop music (Aphex Twin, New Order, The Cure) on the soundtrack, the largely 1980s choices being another hint that this is really more about Ms C, who became a teenager in the middle of that decade.


It drifts along, the Dauphin doing a bit of hunting, Marie getting back to nature in the model farm she set up at the Trianon palace – where she indulges in the sort of mock bucolic playing about with cows and sheep that well-to-do young women now ape with their organic foods and working holidays on farms. And then, waking up as if from a “what the hell was I doing?” reverie, Coppola gets a spurt on with a finale that packs in the “the peasants are revolting”, “let them eat cake”, “off with their heads” headlines in one urgent rush.


Coppola isn’t delivering a history lesson. And the way that she covers the well known events, merely acknowledging their existence, makes that abundantly clear. The clothes are splendid, the locations genuine (some of it was even shot at Versailles), the acting superb, and it’s a fabulously rich summoning of an atmosphere of suffocating protocol. Dramatic, though? Hardly.




Marie Antoinette – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2006





Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland in Melancholia


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



10 April


Halley’s comet and earth at closest point, 837

On this day in AD837, Halley’s Comet got as close as it’s ever got to the earth, as far as records and calculations can tell. The comet has been tracked since at least 240BC and has re-appeared in the skies every 74-79 years, the variation occurring because of the gravitational effect of the different planets it meets on its journey. It travels around the sun elliptically, swinging between the orbits of Mercury and Venus before heading out to somewhere about the distance of Pluto from the sun, then returning. It is estimated, from calculations originally done by Isaac Newton’s friend Edmond Halley, who first suggested that this known apparition was an orbiting feature of the solar system, that the comet passed as close as 3.2 million miles (5.1 million km) from earth, in AD837, the huge tail display having filled up a huge part of the sky. Certainly, astronomers in China, Japan, Germany and the Middle East all recorded it. It is next due to be visible in our skies in 2061.




Melancholia (2011, dir: Lars Von Trier)

Lars Von Trier takes on the cosmic and the intensely personal in his lushest film to date, which opens with the beautiful, haunting and plaintive prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde before presenting us with an opening prologue composed of several highly stylised tableaux – birds falling from the sky, a mother sinking into the ground while carrying her child, a horse falling backwards. And with that he plunges us into a film which divides neatly into two parts. It’s a tale of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the former suffering from crippling depression, the latter a bright ball of fun. And, being Von Trier, he then turns these two jewels in the air, subjects their personalities to extreme testing, to see how the light reflects off their different surfaces. Justine he scrutinises on her wedding day – the best day of a girl’s life – a day that goes spectacularly wrong. Onto this quivering jelly he heaps shame and loss and appalling behaviour such as family can only deliver (Charlotte Rampling is an exquisite sour bag of piss as Dunst’s mother) to see what her psyche will make of it. The psyche ends up fucking some guy out on the hotel golf course, with Justine, we imagine, vaguely along for the ride. Then we hit part two and Claire. For Claire, the super-bubbly optimist, Von Trier has something special in store – nothing less than the end of the world, in the shape of a vast planet that has been hiding behind the moon but is now suddenly scheduled to hit the earth and blammo. How is upbeat Claire going to react to that? Does the naturally dour Justine have anything to offer by way of a philosophical footnote? Which of the two sisters does Von Trier side with? These are the questions asked and answered by part two.
Having made a clarion announcement with the Wagnerian opening, Von Trier continues by piling spectacle upon the emotional turmoil – we’re a million miles visually from Dogville and Manderlay – treating us to skyscapes of Kubrickian hugeness, a Twilight of the Gods such as only cinema can deliver. The performances are big too. And good – Dunst is revelatory as the tortured Justine, Gainsbourg is successfully cast against type as the bright button, there’s an outstanding display of gravitas by Kiefer Sutherland that shows us he can access Sutherland senior’s charisma if he wants to. And Udo Kier pops up early on, as he does in Von Trier films, totemlike, as the sort of wedding planner you might want at the end of the world. It’s a disaster movie, though like no other, the people continuing on with their silly obsessions, their prattling inconsequentialities, the concrete of their personalities being tested for signs of flexibility, or cracks, by something so big it calls everything into question. Melancholia is a great film.



Why Watch?


  • Von Trier’s best film
  • Probably Kirsten Dunst’s best film too
  • Manuel Claro’s epic yet intimate cinematography
  • A support cast including John Hurt, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Melancholia – at Amazon





On the Road

Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart in On the Road


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 October



Jack Kerouac dies, 1969

On this day in 1969, the writer born Jean-Louis Kérouac died, from internal bleeding brought on by long-term alcohol abuse. He was the child of French Canadians and his first language was French, though he picked up English later and was fluent in his teenage years. He won a football scholarship to Columbia University, New York, but dropped out. There, in New York, he met Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs, among others, the core of the Beat Generation writers, the latest iteration of 20th century romantics. Discharged from war service in the Merchant Marine due to a “schizoid personality”, he set about writing in a style highly influenced by jazz, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that he started to make a name for himself, after the publication of The Town and the City. The work he is best remembered for these days, On the Road, started in French years before, followed. It was a semi-factual retelling of his travels with Neal Cassady and other Beats in the late 40s. Splurged out in semi-associative freeform recollection, the novel was typed out onto one continuous 120 foot (37 metre) long piece of paper, the better to catch the spontaneity that Kerouac craved (Truman Capote would later bitch, “That’s not writing, that’s typing”). On the Road struggled to get a publisher, because of its graphic drug scenes, sexual episodes, perceived amorality, and so on. Though Kerouac saw it as a book about Catholic guys looking for redemption. He wrote drafts of ten more novels while marrying and fleeing, travelling the USA, broke for the most part. In 1957 On the Road was published, Kerouac was proclaimed the voice of a generation, fame and fortune arrived, his previously unpublished works went into print, and Kerouac kept writing. And drinking. And writing. His post 1957 output includes Desolation Angels, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Vanity of Duluoz. All of his books remain in print.



On the Road (2011, dir: Walter Salles)

Taking his cue from Jack Kerouac’s jazz-flavoured prose style, Walter Salles goes for a loose improvisational adaptation of the Beat era’s most famous novel. Not everyone went a bundle on the casting – but of Sam Riley (as Jack Kerouac and his alter ego Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (as Neal Cassady aka Dean Moriarty) and Kristen Stewart (as LuAnne Henderson aka Marylou), it’s only really Hedlund who seems slightly wrong, aiming for hipster cool and coming across a bit like a TV host. Stewart, internet trolls might be sad to hear, is excellent as the girlfriend of one guy who might well switch horses midstream, and catches that dangerous air of a girl who’ll do just about anything, and that includes going for the home and a baby. The plot is as freeform as the music it draws inspiration from, a series of long road trips in a big old Buick, kids lighting out to wherever – Chicago, San Francisco, Mexico. All the while Kirsten makes eyes she shouldn’t at Sam and Tom Sturridge (playing Allen Ginsberg) makes eyes at Garrett, who is adept at suggesting that while Neal/Dean might not be gay enough to go there too willingly, he is at least open to persuasion. It’s a prototype hippie journey, the Ken Kesey Magic Bus across America an entire generation earlier, when the doomy poverty of The Grapes of Wrath era still hung heavy and it was even more obvious that the sort of romantic liberation on offer was even more a man-only affair. If reality offered the biggest kicks to the men, the film provides an opportunity for female acting talent. Alongside the excellent Stewart, there’s Kirsten Dunst reminding us of how good she can be, and Amy Adams and Alice Braga are also worth spending time with. If the film lacks the fireworks that some people wanted from it, that’s partly because, like the book, it takes these people at their own self-aggrandising estimation of themselves. Plus the fact that, just by showing us the “liberation” project at one of its key mythic moments, it becomes all the more clear that this project has now run its course. And you can’t blame Kristen Stewart for that.



Why Watch?


  • Lots of great performances – Kirsten Dunst is particularly fine
  • Kerouac – inspiration for people from Bob Dylan to Katy Perry
  • Eric Gautier’s beautiful cinematography
  • Livewire jazz, from Charlie Parker, Slim Gaillard et al


© Steve Morrissey 2013



On the Road – at Amazon