The film follows the journey of the title character (Kirsten Dunst) the winsome sweet-natured teenage archduchess of Austria who is dispatched by her family in the late 1700s into a politically advantageous marriage to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) the future king of France. While the trappings of the royal palace at Versailles are as extravagant and glamorous as any traditional historical biopic the heart of the film is Marie Antoinette’s smaller more emotional world as she struggles to fit in with the puzzling customs and often-stern judgment of a foreign court. She must also fulfill her duty to her own nation—namely producing an heir to safeguard their political status a task that proves increasingly frustrating as she romances her maddeningly reticent new husband. Much like any modern young woman in our era of airhead heiresses she initially soothes her angst by indulging in excessive shopping sprees wild parties and flirtations with a hunky war hero. But she also eases into her role on the throne only to find that her starving angry peasant subjects have taken a harsh view of the gossip surrounding her profligate behavior as they mount the French Revolution. As a child actress who worked steadily into her teens and early twenties Dunst has always been a fresh sunny presence on screen in popcorn films like Bring It On but who could also reveal an ability to access darker corners as she did in her debut performance in Interview with the Vampire and in Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut The Virgin Suicides. But after her breakthrough role in 2002’s Spider-Man most of Dunst’s subsequent efforts seem to have be chosen more to build her Hollywood stardom than challenge her acting skills and perhaps unchallenged she delivers performances more competent than compelling. Marie Antoinette is a welcome return to a more complicated and conflicted role and she rises to the challenge admirably with her most appealing and most affecting turn to date. Utterly capturing the queen’s evolution from naïf to sophisticate gaining wisdom and maturity from her youthful frustrations and overindulgences Dunst makes Marie’s plight utterly relatable and imbues virtually every scene of the film with a watchability that outdoes even the luxe production design. In only her third—and most ambitious—film writer-director Sofia Coppola continues on her hot streak. Already one of the most atmospheric and subtle helmers working in Hollywood she not only marries her modern dreamlike style to the opulent visuals of a historical drama she effectively redefines Marie Antoinette in a way that any alienated over-her-head teen of today could appreciate while also showing just why the population at large might have considered her a monster. As Coppola is the quiet introspective daughter of a revered famously over-the-top filmmaker she too was thrust into a sophisticated world at an early age and was with her much-panned acting turn in The Godfather Part III certainly misunderstood by the public if not reviled. One is tempted to think a certain reliability applies to her success with her story. But her assured skills as a filmmaker are what really make Marie soar—even her experimental touches such as the use of anachronistic music on the soundtrack (the Strokes Bow Wow Wow New Order and others appear alongside Vivaldi). It make perfect sense in context the kind of tunes a disaffected adolescent might play in her bedroom while wondering why no one understands them. That’s just the icing; the rest of Marie’s delectable cake is well worth eating.
Graham Granville is a highly neurotic jerky nerd from Kansas who journeys with his hip Los Angeles-based brother Allen (aka Rex) to the rundown French chateau they have both inherited from a long-lost French relative. While Allen is much more together than his klutzy bro neither bonds comfortably with any of the help who remain at the chateau. These include Isabelle the maid with a secret and Jean the elderly servant with a secret. The brothers break the servants' hearts with news that they have decided to sell the dilapidated castle but Graham impulsively assures them that their positions will be included in the sale as a package. Business-savvy Allen who has learned the fine art of making a profit by running a sex-oriented Web site is eager to find a buyer. A coarse American party animal arrives on the scene to buy but Graham hasn't the heart to unload on such a creep. Mercenary instincts are further waylaid when the brothers confront revelations about some of the downstairs staff who have a more personal stake in the fate of the chateau.
Depending on one's tolerance for jerks Paul Rudd as heir Graham Granville will either charm or annoy to death. Romany Malco as brother Allen/Rex has great charisma and like Rudd is a fine and confident actor who will one day rise to the occasion when it presents itself. In supporting roles French stars Sylvie Testud as Isabelle the maid and Didier Flamand as Jean are more than adequate although neither is afforded the opportunity to chew up the ragged scenery. Donal Logue as a crass party-boy American who may buy the chateau amuses as France's worst nightmare of the loud-mouthed Yank with plenty of bucks but no style.
First-timer Jesse Peretz who directs from his own idea doesn't embarrass with his debut. Nor does he show unassailable promise. He lets The Chateau smack ever so subtly as a vanity project and suggests there's more self-indulgence than intelligence behind this sloppy goofy but well-meaning effort. Still Peretz daring to do the ridiculous comes up with an original. Like the chateau the film is a sight for sore eyes but has enough bright moments to spark mild interest. The often grainy digital visuals and improvisational style mesh perfectly with its let's-just-have-fun-and-amuse spirit. Videophiles may want to check out how the film manages to get so much definition from candle-lit scenes. Whatever its cinematic and commercial challenges at least The Chateau dares to deal pungently and amusingly with the social and cultural chasms separating Frogs and Yanks. In English and occasional French with some subtitles the film often pleases because its goals are obviously so modest.