"Marie Antoinette": The rise of a queen through the eyes of a child

Sofia Coppola specializes in lost girls, wafting through a mysteriously foreign world. In "The Virgin Suicides," that world was adolescence; in "Lost in Translation," it was Japan, seen through the soft eyes of a young, directionless American. In Coppola's third and most ambitious film, "Marie Antoinette," Kirsten Dunst plays the young French queen, brought from her Austrian home as a teenager in 1770 to marry the future King Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). Swirling with candy-box colors, rustling silks and dangling earrings, the film is a sensual delight, but behind the ravishing style is an unexpectedly poignant portrait. Marie Antoinette, in this vision, is a girl trying to find her way; an Alice in a very odd Wonderland.

Dunst — who, as a teenager, provided the emotional center of "The Virgin Suicides" — is soft and vulnerable here, subtly demonstrating Marie Antoinette's growing maturity.

Arriving in France for the first time, she must endure the demeaning "handover" ceremony (documented in Antonia Fraser's fascinating book "Marie Antoinette: The Journey," on which this film is based). Nothing of Austria could enter France with her, even her beloved dog; she was stripped to her stockings, and reclothed in French finery. As Dunst emerges from the handover tent, she's already transformed: The laughing, long-haired girl now has an intricate coiffure and a chin raised firmly, ready to leave girlhood behind.

But the court she finds at Versailles (after a speedy marriage ceremony to a polite but unenthusiastic Louis) is a bewildering place. Crowds of noblewomen attend her ritual dressing every morning; an audience watches her every meal. After church each day, there's little to do but gossip — or eye the courtiers busily gossiping about her. ("She looks like a little piece of cake," murmurs one.) And Marie Antoinette can't even carry out her one purpose of providing an heir: The royal marriage went unconsummated for many years.

Little happens for much of "Marie Antoinette," but Coppola is a visual storyteller, and with her first big canvas she creates a giddy world at Versailles in color and light. Everything looks edible, in creamy pastels and ice-cream brights: In an opening shot, Dunst lounges in a petticoat so white and frothy, it might be made of whipped cream. Lonely and unhappy, Marie Antoinette takes refuge in style and fantasy. We watch her choosing fabrics, squealing with joy at a new hairstyle, finding meaning in adornment and play.

On the soundtrack, Baroque composer Rameau is joined by '80s rock; like the cast's variety of natural accents, it's occasionally jarring but feels oddly right. There's a contemporary sensibility that's entirely present here, and it's part of what gives the film its life.

The French Revolution is stirring, but we see little of it here; Coppola keeps her focus within the walls of Versailles, following her heroine in her fragile yet exquisite world. Dunst, wrapped in a gown of dusty French blue, gazes out past the camera's eye, beautiful and remote. This Marie Antoinette has a girlishness that can't last; the world will catch up with her, no matter how fast she whirls.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Marie Antoinette," with Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Rose Byrne, Asia Argento, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Steve Coogan. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on the book "Marie Antoinette: The Journey" by Antonia Fraser. 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity and innuendo. Several theaters.