Friday, September 29, 2006

NYFF day one: Royalty

With embargoes officially gone because this is a major film festival, we go with the bookends for the NYFF. The reason is that there's a common theme: Royalty. Both are about the same thing to some extent. The conflict between public opinion and the Royal family. The Queen gets it, Marie Antionette doesn't.

The Queen
Miramax Films, 103mins, PG-13

Directed by
Stephen Frears

In the early fall of 1997, Great Britain had a nervous breakdown. On the last day of August, Diana, Princess of Wales was famously killed in a car wreck. The British Royal family, who loathed her for years, acted in such a way as to put in jeopardy everything they had spent the previous sixty-one years trying build.

This film is all about show business and celebrity culture as it was in the last decade of the 20th century. It’s not really about politics per se, but that fits into it to some extent.

The film begins with the inauguration of British Prime Minister Tony Blair(Michael Sheen), who was called to Buckingham palace in order to be appointed to the job by HM Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), in a ceremony called “kissing hands. This may be accurate in it’s details, especially the fact that since the Queen had been doing this for 44 years and knew what was actually going on a lot more than Blair does, especially when it comes to protocol.

However, what HM, her mother(Sylvia Syms) and husband Prince Philip (James Cromwell) didn’t know, is that the press liked Di far more than they did them and generally took the “people’s princess’” side in the war between her and them. Prince Charles(Alex Jennings) knew it too, and he at least made an attempt to show some remorse. Politics, like show business, is to some extent sbout hypocrisy and while the royals try to stay the course, there’s the war between HM’s private secretary Robin Janvrin(Roger Allam) on the one side, and Blair and his press secretary Stephen Lampor(Tim McMullan) on the other. The big question for Blair and Lampor was how to save people you don’t like and an institution you don’t respect?

That was Blair’s problem and why this crisis was his finest hour.

Frears’ work is always wonderful, and with this cast he’s especially so. We’ve got both sides placed before us in a sympathetic way, knowing what happened later, it’s amazing that everyone actually looks as good as they do. Mirren is going to get nominated for an Oscar, at least, and Sheen’s going to break into the big time.

This has the immediacy of a “West Wing” episode, and it’s thrilling. See it.

Marie Antoinette
Sony Pictures, 101mins, PG-13

Written and Directed
by Sofia Coppola

The tagline to the film is: ”The party that started a revolution” and that isn’t exactly correct. The party had been going on for 114 years when Marie Antoinette von Habsburg-Lorraine showed up in 1774. It was all the idea of French King Louis XIV, who was at war with the nobles when he was a kid in the 1650s and needed to give them something to do instead of plotting against him.

So he threw an eternal party at his new digs at Versailles in 1661 and it kept on going until 1790, by which time the Revolution was going on full swing.

For reasons of state, [and get rid of her] Holy Roman Empress dowager Maria Teresa(Marianne Faithful) has made a pact with Louis XV(Rip Torn), to send her youngest daughter Marie-Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst), then 16, to marry the good hearted but inept dauphin (Jason Schwartzman), this meant that in return for getting pregnant, she would get to be the star and hostess for the eternal party, for the rest of her life. The downside was gossip and backbiting by a bunch of bored dilatants stuck in an expensive world of endless ceremonial.

Talk about exotic, this is as bizarre as it gets.

One of the great mysteries in history is why King Louis XV of France didn’t send his grandson the dauphin, to a high class whorehouse in order to learn how to get laid properly. The kid was a bit of a prude, unlike most Frenchmen of the time, and it would cause both he and his fiancée quite a bit of trouble. So we see MT living with the anxiety of two people who don’t know what they’re doing and are being forced to pay the price for it until The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II(Danny Huston) arrives and cures them.

Then she gets to become that greedy bitch the world has loved to hate for over two centuries.

This is a slight but lavishly produced biopic, and it’s always fun to take a glimpse into the remarkably insane world of the royal village of Versailles at the end of the old regime. We can almost see the cracks in the façade of the ancient monarchy, which was creaking away under the beauteous and expensive façade.

The story has been told before, most recently in “The Affair of the Necklace” [which has been excised from the script], and it remains as vacuous as it is in the history books. MT is portrayed as an innocent party girl, more sinned against than sinning. The sheer snobbery shown to Madame du Barry(Asia Argento) is appalling and so is all that other crap which goes on. It’s fascinating up to a point.

The problem is not that we don’t see and empathize with her during her initial stay, but once the “problem” is solved, Coppola doesn’t really know what to do with the rest of the film. Going shopping with her pals(Judy Davis, Rose Byrne and some others) and a brief affair with a Swedish count(James Dornan), but we really don’t have a clue as to why exactly the whole thing fell apart…apparently, in real life, neither did she. If you like lavish sets and costumes, then this frivolous trifle is for you. If you want a genuine understanding of the machinations of history, read a book.

No comments: