marie antoinette (dir. sofia coppola, 2006)

 

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Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is in such bad taste. It’s perfect. The first time I saw it, I discounted it as a shallow indulgence in style and soft-focus. What a fool I was. To be sure, many people agreed with me. And many, I suppose, still do. But, here’s the thing. Marie Antoinette, love it or hate it, is a masterpiece. It is a vision fully realized. Here are four reasons.

reason one

Film is, first and foremost, a sensual experience, not all that different from a sunrise or a night of fireworks. Marie Antoinette contains scenes of both and more besides! We trundle through glimmering forests in lavender carriages. We race across golden green fields, our hands waving free. We feast upon colorful towers of macarons. We thrill to the mysterious invitation of a fan unfurled across rosy cheeks. Coppola has worked with Kirsten Dunst before, in Virgin Suicides, and she would work with her again later, in The Beguiled, but it’s here, in Marie Antoinette, that she may have captured best the beauty and spirit of her muse. Dunst plays the soon-to-be beheaded queen with a mix of naiveté, recklessness, and a fragile, if altogether willful, joy. Coppola frames her in moments sometime rigid and sometimes loose, sometimes formal and sometimes intimate. We see Antoinette with her hair piled high, her waist cinched tight, her décolletage exquisitely décollated, and we see her also in bed, in despair and wonder, in loneliness and anticipation, sometimes buried under blankets and sometimes all bare shoulders and ruddy legs, giggling at the prospect of some unfettered joy. We know what happens to her in the end, and Coppola knows her job here isn’t to remind us of that fact at every turn. Her job is only to remind us that all this beauty, as much as it might be decadent and escapist and rapturous, also serves as a prison, and it is no less beautiful because of that. That it is so beautiful, in fact, only makes it hurt all the more.

reason two

There are three moments in this film where Kirsten Dunst breaks the sacred etiquette of film and stares straight at the camera and into the eyes of the viewer. The first time happens right at the start, in an opening scene of Antoinette in her home in Austria. She’s in a chair, in repose, among blues and pinks, cakes and plushed velvet. At one side of the screen, a maid in black-and-white, fits on her mistress a shoe. Dunst licks a bit of frosting from her fingers, and then she catches our eye and gives a slight tilt of her head as if to say, “What are you looking at?”

The second comes in her exchange from Austria to France. She is to be married off to the young Dauphin, Louis, so as to cement the alliance between their two countries. We have arrived at this moment after a long, beautifully dull carriage ride. Antoinette approaches the tent constructed across the border. Once inside, they strip away her dog. And then her rings. Her necklace. Her hat. Her shoes. Her socks. They slip off her dress and her underclothes. It is traditional, she is told, for a bride to leave everything behind. Coppola films this scene from behind, from the point of view of Austria. She cuts next to a shot from the French side. Antoinette walks out of the tent, wearing her new costume, right into the center of the frame. The shot is almost Wes Anderson-esque in its suffocating precision, and so it centers us in Antoinette’s experience of being crushed from all sides into a new shape. This shot should do away with the notion that Coppola prefers soft filters and gauzy ephemerality because it’s all she knows how to do. Here she shows how hard and precise she can be when it appeals to her and here it appeals to her because Antoinette has walked out of her childhood and into an unforgiving adult world in which, above all else, she will be put on display. Dunst stares at us in this moment, dead-eyed and uncertain, as if to say, “Well. Here I am. Is this what you want?” Everything of the film is here in this one shot. It’s magnificent.

The third moment occurs after the birth of a child not belonging to Marie Antoinette. We have seen, at this point, many examples of Louis’ indifferent, if not simply ineffectual, affections. And we have seen Antoinette greeted, each morning, by the crowd of onlookers that gather at the foot of her bed. We have heard the whispers that follow her as to her failure to produce an heir. We have read the letters from her mother lamenting the same. And we have just seen Dunst act the hell out of a scene in which she allows only her joy, and none of her sadness, to greet the happy couple and their new baby. But now we are alone with her in her bedroom, and we watch her crumple against the door and proceed to cry. It is a private moment, for a woman allowed no privacy. But, of course, we are there, too. And she finds our gaze and holds it. There is no sarcasm here. No condescension. There is something less and more. There is a woman and she is looking at us. Coppola wants us to be unsettled. And she wants us to never forget that Antoinette, while so often trapped in the gazes of others, is never without her own gaze.

reason three

Coppola scores this film, for the most part, with a procession of 80s bands like The Cure, New Order, Aphex Twin, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In a film where so much care and expense has been paid in order to achieve such a period-perfect look—all those hats! every scene shot on location in France, in Versaille, or Chantilly, and so on—why deign to wake us from this dream? Why take us out of the moment? Why shatter the verisimilitude? I think because, as in those moments when Dunst stares out at us, the inclusion of dated pop electrifies these proceedings. They provide a shock of life, of rules broken, for good or ill. And, so, their presence helps ensure that the spirit of Antoinette shines out among the aforementioned hats and palatial beauties. Whatever else she is, or was, Antoinette is a girl whose heart, however excessive in its desire and however chained by its place in history, is her own. As those meta moments of wall breaking remind us that her gaze is her own, the soundtrack reminds us that her emotions are her own, as well.

As well, there is, I think, the fact that Coppola wants us to imagine Antoinette, herself, as a kind of 1980s pop star, and to imagine the time of her reign in France, as a gilded mirror held up to that decade, what with all its excess of greed and lust and the inevitable crash to come. And so we have this Antoinette caught in the prison of her own privilege. She is always on display. She is always the center of gossip. She is beloved and hated as the emblem of a regime she had no part in building. She is Madonna. Not the holy mother, but the wicked pop star. She is a symbol, for some, of all that’s wrong in society, and for others, for all that’s beautiful and empowering. In one way or another all of Coppola’s films deal with women trapped in the gaze of others, who nonetheless posses a gaze and beauty all their own. So it is here, too. Antoinette is never wicked nor role model. She is, for better and worse, only herself.

reason four

In The Beguiled, as here, we have a group of people seemingly cut off, and protected, from history. In one, a seminary of girls hidden by the Virginia woods from The Civil War. In the other, a queen and her court sheltered away in palaces and retreats from the mob calling for their heads. In both, the narrative turns on how the world that shelters them also imprisons them, and in some cases, dooms them. Marie Antoinette, in this film, only visits Paris but once. She is a palace girl. She is a diva out of necessity. What else can she do? She could speak out, of course. She could empathize with the mob. But who has ever empathized with her? Who has ever taught her by example? None. How could she look at a mob of people and not just see another mass of humanity, like all the others, looking at her and seeing whatever they want to see? Another set of eyes, for her, only means another set of demands. Some may accuse Coppola, I think, of trying to have her cake and eat it, too, calling on us to care for a woman of privilege, and to bask with her in the decadent and destructive nature of the beauty of her world, while only cursorily calling it all into question. But I don’t think so. Coppola doesn’t let Antoinette off the hook. Nor does she let us off the hook. She simply stages the hook in the wings. She trusts that we can see it for ourselves, even if we never see it. She trusts that, at the end, as the carriage takes Antoinette to her fate, we see what we must. A girl, with her face against a window, watching the world fall away. “Admiring the view?” her husband asks. “No,” she says. “I’m just saying goodbye.”

 

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

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otis redding: live in london and paris (2008)

My dad owned a lot of 8-track and cassette tapes. He loved music. Sometimes he played his favorite songs on our piano. He didn’t need the sheet music. He just played them by ear. I didn’t realize this was special as a kid. It was just something my dad could do.

When I was seven or eight, he passed along a cassette to me called Cruisin’ Classics. It had songs on it by the Supremes and Jackie Gleason and Marvin Gaye. I fell asleep listening to it all the time. There was a time in my life I couldn’t go to sleep without listening to music. It’s possible that falling asleep to that cassette, and all the others like it that my dad passed along to me, led directly to my dreams of one day falling in love with someone so much that it broke my heart.

One of my dad’s favorite songs I never remember him playing on the piano. I don’t remember ever hearing it on a cassette tape, either. I remember him whistling it all the time, though. And I remember those happy moments when he and I would be driving somewhere, and it would come on the radio and we would sing along to it. The song was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin On) The Dock of the Bay.” I can hear my dad whistling it whenever I think about it. Sometimes if I listen really hard, I can hear us singing, too. The whistling is louder, though. I don’t know why that is.

When he died, my sister and I found all kinds of music on my dad’s computer. Stuff I never really knew he loved. Songs like “Hurt” by Timi Yuro. “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian. So much ABBA. It turned out my dad had the heart of a fourteen-year-old girl. I felt closer to him that day than I had in a long time. I don’t know why death sometimes brings people to life the way it does, but it does. So it goes.

There was a lot of music from the film Easy Ryder on his computer, too. The Byrds did that album. There’s a song on it called “The Ballad of the Easy Ryder,” and we chose it to play at his funeral.

Here’s how part of that one goes:

The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes
That’s where I want to be
Flow river flow
Let your waters wash down
Take me from this road
To some other town

Go river go
Past the shaded tree
Flow river, flow
Flow to the sea
Flow to the sea

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I realized the song we picked for his funeral took me and my dad back to sitting in his truck, driving down some open road, dreaming about sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. The two of us together at the edge of the world. Just wasting time.

I started writing and thinking about all of this when I listened to Otis Redding: Live in London and Paris. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” isn’t even on this album.

Ghosts live in the strangest places.

 

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

 

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captain america: winter soldier (dir. anthony and joe russo, 2014) + chloe bennett

 

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Captain America: Winter Soldier took me by surprise. I was not expecting the closing credits to be my favorite part.

chloe bennet lip syncs to hamilton on instagram

Chloe Bennet, one of the stars of the television show Agents of Shield, posted this post in which she, and co-star, Jeff Ward, lip-sync to the song “Satisfied” from Hamilton. It is amazing. You should watch it. That is all.

chloe singing with parrot

I enjoyed this video of Chloe Bennett singing with a parrot a lot. More than is possibly normal. It is possible I have a crush on Chloe Bennett. It is also possible that watching the video I was in love with imagining Chloe looking at this parrot shaking its head and coming up with the idea of singing along with it. I tend to fall in love as much with ideas as I do with people. Sometimes, in fact, I fall more in love with the idea of people, or things, than with the people or things themselves. Most of my life has been spent correcting for this behavior by listening to other people and things and trying to understand them for who and what they truly are.

 

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

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p.s. Here’s a link to David Mack’s blog in which more gifs of those Winter Soldier titles. He was the illustrator and concept art and, together with Sarofsky, put together these amazing titles.

lady bird (dir. greta gerwig, 2017)

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What a generous and attentive film. There are stories everywhere you look. It’s kind of like Star Wars in that way. Every corner of the Lady Bird galaxy teems with life. But it never feels crowded. For all the half-dozen or more characters on display here—each interesting enough, really, to star in their own film—Greta Gerwig, in her solo directorial debut, manages without fail to give them enough room to breathe. Sometimes it’s an extra scene here or there. Sometimes an extra line, or wink, or smile. Perhaps an eye roll. Sometimes it’s the exact right amount of nothing as one sometimes finds in an empty parking lot.

This is Sacramento, at the turn of the millennium. Lady Bird is a catholic school girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Her parents try their best as parents so often do. Lady Bird feels, as many children often do, that whatever it is their parents are trying, it’s not working. Lady Bird has a friend or two. One of them is the best. She finds a boyfriend. They tell stories to each other about the stars. She tries her hand at song and dance. Her best friend does better. Her boyfriend does best. Lady Bird isn’t unhappy with her life. But, she isn’t happy either. If you asked her, I think she would probably say that her life, her real life, hasn’t started yet. I think she’s trying her best to get things going, though.

I first saw Saoirse Ronan in Atonement, though I didn’t know it at the time. I saw her again in Grand Budapest Hotel. And then again in Brooklyn . Also, Hannah. Here she is Lady Bird. Every time I see her it feels like the first time. I think this is a magic not everyone possesses. Imagine living every day as though it was not the last day of your life, but the first. Imagine possessing such brave wonder.

We begin our journey with Lady Bird waking up next to her mom. They are in a hotel bed. They are as close as two people can be without falling into each other. Later, Lady Bird’s mom drives her home. Or tries to. Lady Bird jumps out along the way. Much later, Lady Bird learns to drive herself. And when she drives around Sacramento, we see an echo of this earlier drive. And in that echo, echoes of all the times her mom drove her anywhere. This is cinema as it can be. As poetry. All rhythm and rhyme. The world glimpsed by a girl through the windows of her mom’s car. The memory of home.

Gerwig, through the glimpses she gives into the lives of all of her characters, allows us a similar gift. We watch them grow into themselves. We watch as they, and we, come to see them for who they truly are. This is a film that rewards attention. This is a film with which you fall deeper in love the more you think about all that you have seen. I suspect this is one of those films, like The Shawshank Redemption, which will grow only more beloved with time.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, after Lady Bird has discovered new kinds of friends and new kinds of pain, after she and her mom have fallen out again, as they seem to keep doing, one of the more awesome nuns at the school tells Lady Bird something that she needs to know. She tells her that maybe attention is a form of love. This strikes me as one of the harder truths to learn and to accept. People are always telling us to pay attention. As though it should cost us something to see things, and people, as they truly are. I don’t know that we always consider the costs, but I think this is a cost most of us want to be willing to pay. I suspect, though, that for many children, as with Lady Bird, it is a cost they don’t always want to bear.

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

 

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