Saturday, December 02, 2006

1,000 Words on Marie Antoinette

I'm a big fan of Sofia Coppola's movies, so I'm surprised at myself that it took this long to go see her latest, Marie Antoinette. I waited too long, it turns out, so I had to go see it at a late-run showing at the Laemmle Sunset. Now, I like this theater a lot. It does very adventurous programming, has a student discount, and the staff are friendly. But the seats, man, the seats! My long legs don't quite fit in the space allotted, and I always spend the whole movie squirming around trying to get comfortable.

So, the movie. Every movie by Ms. Coppola has the same basic story arch: we know from the very beginning that things will end in tragedy. In The Virgin Suicides it's the titular death of all the sisters. In Lost in Translation it's knowing that ultimately Bill Murray will have to leave Japan and Scarlett Johansson. In Marie Antoinette...well, we all know what happens to her. But in each case, the inevitable tragedy is delayed for the entire movie. When it finally comes, it seems sudden and unprepared, despite the fact that you've been lolling around for two hours waiting for it. It reminds me of the end of Charles Ives's first symphony. By the end of the fourth movement, you've been pushed and buffeted by multiple layers of dissonant and seemingly unrelated music, constantly being teased as if the end is near. On the very last page of the score, the pace is picking up yet again, and you're sure that the thing is going to end any moment. And then you get this gigantic cadence (overlaid with a trumpet playing "Reveille", because, you know, it is Ives after all) and you just know the end will be any moment now. And then Ives does indeed end it, but with a gigantic cluster chord played at fortissimo by the entire orchestra, a chord that contains 11 notes--every single possible chromatic note, that is, except the B flat which would resolve the cadence. The piece has indeed ended, but it doesn't feel good. When the mob storms Versailles in Marie Antoinette, you obviously knew it was coming, but this fulfillment of an expectation doesn't feel good.

Another classic Sofia device is tension between extreme presence and absence. Her movies are full of sensory overload. The colors are vivid, the music loud. And yet, in each movie, there is some crucial missing element. In Lost in Translation, this was the famous whispered dialogue at the very end--Bill Murray leans in to whisper something in Scarlett Johansson's ear. It's clearly something important to the narrative, but it's a busy Tokyo street and you can't hear them. In Marie Antoinette, it's the sun. At several key moments in the movie, Kirsten Dunst watches the sun rise. In each moment, the sun is always just outside the frame. All we see are reflections--on water, on glass, on her face. There's nothing so iconographic as the sun, and it is hard to imagine any filmmaker, painter, or photographer composing a frame of sunrise that did not put the sun at the very center. In Marie Antoinette, having been bombarded with sensory overload for two hours, you feel this absence more strongly than almost anything else.

I don't know much about film studies, but I imagine it would be pretty easy to do a feminist post-structuralist reading of Coppola's work. You've got the non-traditional narratography, the privileging of surface experience over interior depth, the representations of consumerism that lies somewhere between critique and celebration. These films are nothing if not full of jouissance. If I might pull out one more annoying musicological metaphor, however, there are elements of this film that make me think of the arguments my advisor makes in his book on minimalism. Many feminist critics have celebrated the jouissance of minimalist music, its ability resist a heterosexual erotics of music--rather than Beethoven making you work really hard for an hour before finally giving you release at the end, minimalism just gives you endless bliss. That's the standard reading. My advisor, however, points out that a lot of minimalist music does actually have plenty of discrete moments of release. To be blunt, it's not, in other words, that minimalism has no orgasm or one long sustained one, but that often it has dozens of small ones.

I bring this up because in Marie Antoinette, Coppola does not actually just sit back and let the pretty colors and loud music wash over you. Although I would probably need to see it again, I do sense a structure in this movie that is just as top-down, push-the-audience-around as Beethoven. It just uses the non-traditional elements I outlined above to do so. I'm thinking in particular of the mob scene at Versailles. For the entire movie we've been treated to this very loud soundtrack that combines late 70's and early 80's new wave and punk rock with fairly authentic mid-18th century music, like Rameau. The music is a crucial part of telling you what to think, and with the opulent sets and costumes forms the major part of the sensory overload. That said, the loudest noise of the movie is actually the sound of the mob when Kirsten Dunst opens up the door on her balcony. The sound of the crowd is significantly louder than the already-loud music we've been listening to. It was a shocking moment, and one that was not arrived at by way of the plot--the mob came hours ago, and it is no secret what is going to happen. And the main visual imagery is another absence--for several shots, the camera focuses on specific individuals in the mob, but never their faces, just the backs of their heads. Coppola is using the presence vs. absence tension to shock us. We're being manipulated, but not in a traditional movie way.

I have to say, I like it.

No comments: