Sofia Coppola's strengths as a director have always been to show us the interstices of life rather than the great or powerful moments, which she tends to elide over. In "The Virgin Suicides" we are not privy to the large questions, if there were any (and I've never been sure there were); we see the lives of the sisters between the cracks as it were. In "Lost in Translation" it's in the small details of that tempting non-affair between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson that the most interesting parts of that film lie.
"Marie Antoinette" is very much in keeping with Coppola's other work. There's barely a mention of the world before the deluge, the politics of the alliance between Austria and France that required the teenage Maria to become Marie and marry the Dauphin in order to provide an heir to the throne. Nor is there any sense, until we near the final moments, of the shock that was to destroy the royal house and start the revolution.
What the film does have is an inspired portrait of life at Versailles in the two decades between her arrival at court and the moments before the capture of the royal family. We are most privy to the details of the incomplete marriage between Marie and the future Louis XVI, and the incessant gossip and backbiting of the court, the half-heard conversations, the incomplete sentences that people who've known each other for life can use with each other. The problem with making a movie of these nonevents is that they are stuck in aspic, murmured and repeated incessantly by royal attendants themselves immobilized by the pleasures and rigidities of the palace. Only when Marie has an adulterous affair with a Swedish count (a speculation by Antonia Fraser, who wrote the book the film is based on) do we sense the release of at least a bit of sexual tension and the enjoyment of some kind of hedonistic pleasure beyond that of clothes, hair styles, jewelry and footwear.
When we first meet Maria/Marie at the age of 14, on her way to the French court, Dunst seems a badly mistaken casting choice. She looks every bit of her 24 years, and though she lightens her voice for the role we still miss any sense of a young teenager. Jason Schwartzman as Louis makes the most of an underwritten role. But as the film moves along - and Coppola has wisely not intruded with dates or years, so as to keep the sense of a paralyzed world imprisoned within its own rules and customs - Dunst comes into a kind of maturity, an acceptance that her life is nearing its end. And Coppola uses the immense palace of Versailles itself, where much of the film was shot, as a character in the film, imposing its own requirements of decorum and dress upon all who live within it. When Louis gives Marie the Trianon as her playhouse she takes to life in it as though she were six years old again - except for her assignations with the count.
I think the film is more a sociological study than a drama - certainly it is not an exposť - and it suffers by being unwilling to take any kind of larger view. A boring life makes for a boring movie. Marie is simply not an interesting person, and ultimately that is the film's failure.