My night with "Marie Antoinette" -- live at Cannes

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Gary Meyer of Balboa Theater fame dishes the Cannes screening of Sofa Coppola’s forthcoming opus:

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Can we get more frills on that? A still from Marie Antoinette.

A hometown girl made good at the world’s most prestigious film festival when Valley Girl (Napa Valley, that is) Sofia Coppola presented her newest film, Marie Antoinette, at Cannes.

The movie was filmed in France and deals with one of the country’s most famous historical characters -- an American is always taking chances dealing with something so essentially French. Kirsten Dunst said at the morning press conference, “In America we learn mostly about our history and only a paragraph is dedicated to the French Revolution. “

An 8:30 a.m. press screening generated a handful of predictable boos from a group of French critics though the published reviews were generally favorable and the opening day box office was huge here. What happens at the public showings in more important.

And that is how I wanted to experience Marie Antoinette. I scored hard-to-get tickets for the evening gala. This is the “big deal” where the celebrities and France’s crème de la crème put on their finest. Everyone is required to dress accordingly. Following a day of screenings, I rushed back to my hotel to get into my tuxedo at 5:30. At 6:30 I met my date in front of the Palais. This massive structure is entered via dozens of red carpeted steps flanked by hundreds of photographers and TV camera crews.

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Photo opps galore. Credit: Gary Meyer

As we started our ascension, Yseult, wearing a stunning long dress, was stopped because a security guard noticed she wore black tennis shoes underneath. With some fast talking and a flash of her smile, she got him to look the other way. And then we started an entrance that seemed to take a very long time. Not only are there numerous sets of stairs, but everyone is expected to stop and pose for pictures…just in case we happened to be famous. Suddenly there was loud cheering. We put on our best we-are-important look and pretended to belong. Reaching the top steps we turned to look back and it soon became clear that maybe the cheering had been for Samuel L. Jackson. Oh, well, we had our fantasy moment.

Inside the 3,000-seat auditorium we had excellent orchestra seats thanks to Columbia Pictures. On the huge screen was projected the arrivals. We’d been up there minutes before. And now we had a close-up view as jurors ZiYi Zhang, Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, Monica Bellucci, Tim Roth, and Wong Kar-Wai arrived. Soon came Sharon Stone and Faye Dunaway, then Pedro Almodovar with his film’s star, Penelope Cruz. Several women in astonishing dresses and massive colorful hats came dressed right out of the film. And finally the cast and crew of Marie Antoinette led by director-writer Sophia Coppola under the watchful eyes of proud parents Eleanor and Francis Ford. Ellie made certain to capture everything on her camcorder. Kirsten Dunst was glowing, and her co-stars Jason Schwartzman, Marianne Faithfull, and Steven Cooper seemed to be thrilled, too. As the film’s entourage entered the cinema, the TV cameras followed, and suddenly we saw them a few yards away while projected 50 feet tall. The entire audience rose to offer an advance standing ovation.

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Face time inside the Palais. Credit: Gary Meyer

The movie began. It is a beautifully made work that concentrates on the life of a young woman brought from Austria to be married at 14 years old to the heir to the throne, Louis XVI. The rules were strict at Versailles. Annoyed at first that she couldn’t even get undressed without a staff helping her, Marie soon became accustomed to her escape from family infighting and gossip by indulging in the constant pampering, shopping, eating, and playing with her pets. Her husband wasn’t interested in intimacy, and for years Marie was blamed for their lack of an heir.

Coppola has brought a contemporary sensibility to this tale about the young queen. Her script largely avoids politics with the coming revolution being a factor only at the end of the two-hour film. Sofia explained at the press conference that she wasn’t telling the story of the French Revolution, but it is clear to the audience why the masses would rise up in protest at the extravagance of the royal family while most people were starving.

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Jason Schwartzman and Kristen Dunst maneuver at the press conference.
Credit: Gary Meyer

The settings and costumes are authentic, and the actors explained how they worked to move and inhabit the clothing. They all did considerable research for their characters. Schwartzman told how amazing it was to wander around Versailles alone and develop a sense of what it might have been like to live there. But Coppola wants the movie to come alive for today’s audiences, and her musical score features 1970s and ‘80s tunes while the spoken language feels comfortably contemporary. She admits to having taken liberties with history while drawing parallels between the excesses of the 18th century French monarchy and modern-day affluence. Valley Girl, indeed…Loire Valley Girl.

"I wanted the film to be credible, but I was inspired more by the visual than historical facts. I want people to be transported into another era with an echo of today," Coppola said.

The film comfortably coasts along with little dramatic tension, but is a pleasure and should be a popular, if unlikely success to follow Ms Coppola’s very different but linked The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation.

Following the screening was a lengthy standing ovation and then those with colorfully painted fans/invitations moved outside and over to Plage Marie Antoinette for the after party. Tables filled with assorted seafood from raw tuna on spoons to crayfish and oysters, were supplemented by vegetables, salads, and the tastiest cheese balls that have ever melted in my mouth. A large table sported a tall fountain of flowing chocolate waiting for assorted fruits to be drowned. Sofia was spotted indulging, and when nobody noticed (except my friend from the Hollywood Reporter), she wiped some chocolate off on her dress. Additional guests, many dressed casually, arrived. We spotted Robin Williams, Michele Yeoh, REM’s Michael Stipe, and cyclist Lance Armstrong. There were crème puffs but they didn’t let us eat cake, the famous reference, which is referred to as a joke in the movie.

The weather was perfect, and at midnight a spectacular fireworks show erupted over the harbor. A DJ played great ‘80s dance music. My feet started to hurt at 2 a.m., and it was time to go home. There was an 8:30 am screening to rest up for. I carefully exited in hopes that the masses weren’t waiting outside to rise up against the most extravagant party I’ve attended.

To read quotes from the Marie Antoinette press conference, visit the festival site.