This is the movie The Queen tried to be: a portrait of the vagaries of royalty. Marie Antoinette -- without trying to be an academic dissertation (like The Queen was) -- ponders how a monarch can command so much respect and deference but be a completely ineffectual leader. I question my use of the word "ponders," though, because Sofia Coppola isn't a showy meditator. Her movies are tableaus. Their souls are quiet and thoughtful. She creates and presents a world as she sees it and then, like a passive deity, simply watches how it evolves and conducts itself.
Versailles, rigid with the sclerosis of tradition, receives their new dauphine, Marie Antoinette of Austria, who is young enough to rebel against the system but not wise enough to put that rebellion to good use. Thrust into her role as queen, Marie first spends her time adjusting to the bewildering treatment, then surrenders herself to being pampered and cocooned. Tradition morphs into decadence. Outside the gates of Versailles, her public begins to boil with discontent -- though we, like Marie, never see them. Do people really need a leader on a pedestal -- primped and preserved into a goddess on Earth, untouchable and therefore out of touch? The film seems to ask that question, but never pursues the answer.
Coppola's Versailles is very beautiful and very real, and Kirsten Dunst finds the right note for Marie: equal parts naïve and knowing, like a child playing dress-up with conviction. Dress-up eventually becomes her reality, which makes the end vibrate with a deeper tragedy. In the final scene, it's apparent that Marie believes she touched heaven during her reign. But it was at the expense of the people who are now dragging her from her Eden.