Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst want to reacquaint the world with the beheaded queen that history has painted as a spoiled rich girl whose extravagance helped ignite the French Revolution.
Dunst takes the title role in writer-director Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” depicting her not as a heartless hedonist ignoring the misery of the masses but as a lost teen who was sold into an arranged marriage and ill-prepared for the stifling protocol of court life.
The fanciful narrative blends 18th century costumes and settings with a wild blend of music, including contemporary pop songs by Bow Wow Wow, the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Adapted from Antonia Fraser’s book “Marie Antoinette: The Journey,” the film centers on Marie’s years at the French palace at Versailles, where she was dispatched at age 14 from her native Austria to wed Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman), heir to France’s throne.
The cast includes Rip Torn, Judy Davis, Marianne Faithful, Steve Coogan and Asia Argento.
Coppola got permission to shoot at Versailles, where much of the story actually took place, including Marie’s dramatic obeisance to a French mob that came to confront the royal family.
Premiering at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival, “Marie Antoinette” received a mix of praise and disapproval from French audiences that still have harsh feelings about the queen and may have disliked the idea of an American filmmaker tinkering with her story.
The film is a reunion for Coppola, 35, an Academy Award winner for the screenplay of her 2003 hit “Lost in Translation,” and Dunst, 24, who starred in the director’s debut feature, “The Virgin Suicides.” The filmmaker’s father, Francis Ford Coppola, was an executive producer on “Marie Antoinette,” which opens Friday.
Coppola and Dunst sat down with The Associated Press to talk about their latest collaboration.
AP: Did you have a long-standing interest in Marie Antoinette?
Coppola: I always liked that period of France, the 18th century, the white wigs. I always thought that visually it was an interesting, fun period. But I never really knew anything about Marie Antoinette except for kind of the cliche — evil, decadent queen. But then I read Antonia Fraser’s book. That’s what got me interested in doing a film about this, just to show the real person behind all the myths.
AP: Kirsten, what had you known about Marie?
Dunst: I’d learned what I learned in school. I never really had tried to take the time to look at a historical figure in a personal way before. When you’re in school, you don’t. You just memorize dates and wars.
Coppola: They don’t teach us very much about foreign history in school.
Dunst: They don’t. It was a small paragraph in my book, and then it was more about Napoleon and what happened after. Just like, OK, that was the queen that was beheaded.
AP: Did you have any reservations about playing an 18th century noblewoman?
Dunst: I knew the way Sofia would do it that I could do it. I knew it wasn’t going to be a really self-serious film where we’re going to teach people a lesson about French history, that it would be an introspective story of what she envisioned this woman’s life to be like. So of course, it’s a daunting thought, but I felt safe with Sofia. The reason I wanted to do it is Sofia’s take on the whole thing made it very exciting.
AP: Why did you include all the modern songs?
Coppola: I wanted to make an impressionistic portrait. I didn’t want to do a historical epic. So it was how to do a period film in my own style, not the genre of period films. I always pictured telling the story from her point of view. Part of that was making impressions of what it would feel like to be there at that time. The music had the emotional quality that I wanted the scenes to have, mixing 18th century and contemporary and taking artistic license to kind of create it in my own way.
Dunst: It never felt like, oh, wow, this is weird. It was more about making it an atmosphere that everyone can relate to, not putting any boundaries on it. Not trying to be cool, but just what Sofia related to and what song was appropriate to evoke the feeling of that scene. It wasn’t crazy to me or weird. I never felt like, oh, we’re doing a modern take. There’s no labels you can put on it. It’s just an interpretation.
AP: Some people . Did the response surprise you?
Coppola: I was more surprised with the distortion of Cannes, that five people booed, and we also had big applause. Everyone knows Cannes is a volatile place, and of course, there’ll be mixed opinions. It’s still a loaded subject in France. I’m not surprised that some people weren’t into our approach, but the majority were, and we got great reviews from French critics.
AP: What was it like shooting in the actual locations at Versailles?
Dunst: Walking through the gardens and thinking about them having been there was unbelievable. Being able to be on the stage in her little opera house where she really sang. It’s a living, breathing place when you’re in those guarded, protected areas. We’re so lucky that we got to be in the actual places, because it gives you such a life for yourself for playing that role.
AP: It must have been eerie doing Marie’s obeisance to the crowd on the balcony where it actually happened.
Dunst: It wasn’t eerie so much as ...
Coppola: It had an energy to it. We were thinking, wow, we’re in the real place where it’s happening.
Dunst: I went around the rooms by myself. It was dark and I was by myself a little bit upstairs before the scene. I was looking in mirrors. For me, that moment was a little bit like taking flight almost. Oh, this is my destiny. It’s a doomed one, but at least there’s reality in my face now. It didn’t feel like a horrible moment. It almost felt like freedom in a way.
Coppola: I think it’s this moment where Marie comes into her own and she really becomes a queen and a woman. So in a way, though the ending’s sad, I think it’s also positive, because she came into her own.