A head above the rest 

“People wanted me to be cute, to be all more all-American cute girl, and `Sofia` didn’t want that for me,” Kirsten Dunst says of her first experience working with director Sofia Coppola — the hauntingly beautiful The Virgin Suicides
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Cut along the black line: Sofia Coppola gives her star room to stretch, to really get inside her character’s head. Then, she lops it clean off. 
“People wanted me to be cute, to be all more all-American cute girl, and `Sofia` didn’t want that for me,” Kirsten Dunst says of her first experience working with director Sofia Coppola — the hauntingly beautiful The Virgin Suicides. “She wanted me to feel the actual feelings I was feeling. I really respect her for giving me that, and seeing that in me.”

Eight years later, Coppola promoted an all-grown-up Dunst from supporting actress in an ensemble cast to above-the-title star: The actress is responsible for carrying this fall’s Marie Antoinette. Dunst gets help from Jason Schwartzman, as the doomed monarch’s equally doomed husband King Louis XVI (the pair were eventually guillotined), and from an eccentrically cast royal court that includes Rip Torn, Asia Argento, Marianne Faithfull, and Molly Shannon, but, when all is said and done, Dunst and Coppola will have to absorb most of the shock if the iconoclastic, ultra-modern translation bombs. And, as Marie Antoinette — Coppola’s third film, and her follow-up to the Academy Award-nominated Lost in Translation — was booed and heckled by French audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, it stands a very good chance of doing just that (though it is undeserving of such jeers).

“We were showing Marie Antoinette, done by Americans, made in France, about their historical figure,” Dunst observes, shrugging off the critical lambasting. “I think it was respectful and wonderful that we shot the film in France. The fact that it was accepted by the Cannes Film Festival says a lot.”

Not only did Coppola and her team shoot the film in France, they shot the greater part of it at the Chateau de Versailles, the 120-room former royal palace that had historically been, except for exteriors, off-limits to filmmakers. Producer Ross Katz, who earned Oscar nods for Lost in Translation and In the Bedroom, admits, “There was no back-up plan. It was France or bust. Sofia was only going to make the movie if it was filmed in France, which I think really shows in the film.”

Soft-spoken and prone to nervously playing with objects around her, Coppola comes across as meek and timid, despite the confidence evident in her filmmaking. She’s seven months pregnant, and she agrees with Katz. “I think Chateau Versailles becomes a character in the movie, and I don’t think we could’ve achieved that elsewhere on that level,” she says.

“For me, for my character,” Dunst says, “I could walk around at night, I could touch mirrors, touch walls, look at a clock, and be in a place where you wonder, Did she look in the mirror before she did this?”

Coppola’s intention to tell the interior story of Marie Antoinette, rather than create some stuffy museum-type piece, won over Versailles director-general Pierre Arizzoli-Clementel, who permitted Coppola and company to film more extensively inside the palace than any other film crew in history. “And substantially more,” Katz adds.

To play the emotionally isolated Marie Antoinette — who was 14 when she was taken from Austria and married to a shy French prince who wouldn’t speak to her, and only 18 when she became the queen of a financially collapsing monarchy — Coppola turned to Dunst, who, like the queen who was famously misquoted as saying, “Let them eat cake,” had grown up in the public eye.

“When I was reading Antonia Fraser’s book” — the Marie Antoinette biography the film is adapted from — “I thought, This is someone Kirsten could portray,” Coppola says. “She has the bubbly, silly, not-serious side, but then she has that substance, too.”

“She understands the essence of who I am,” Dunst says. “To work with a woman on a film, an intimate story of a woman that concentrates more on the personal life, the private life … there just aren’t many stories like that being told. When you work with a male director, it’s more about their idea of a woman and, sometimes, their crush on you. Their idea of who you are is different than a woman’s perspective.”

The fact that Dunst is, for better or worse, part of “young Hollywood” makes her an inspired casting choice, too; Marie Antoinette is steeped in parallels to Tinsel-town excess (partying, entourages, fashion, drugs, and gossip rags are all prevalent), and, while Dunst says she has managed to avoid that world, she also says understands it — though she isn’t as quick as Coppola to admit comparisons between the two.

“There’s definitely a lot of frivolity,” Dunst says of Hollywood. “But I don’t want to judge people. Girls are trying to grow up in this business and it can be very difficult; you can lose yourself. I think growing up, having that attention, having people gossip about you … but they’re not running a country. They’re just actors. You can move to Austin, Texas, and be OK, if you don’t want to be followed. `Marie Antoinette` really had no choice.”

Coppola concedes, “I wasn’t trying to make a statement, but, definitely, you can see parallels to our culture today. She was definitely a celebrity in her time. The pamphlets that spread so much misinformation about her were like the tabloids today.”

The years leading up to the French Revolution might feel like an odd environment in which to explore the terrors of growing up a teenage girl amid ostentation, expectations, and beautiful men, but Coppola also imagines the world as not all that emotionally different from the one encountered in high school — an assessment with which Dunst agrees. This might explain the film’s impressionist, Baz Luhrmann-grade infusion of color and its anachronistic soundtrack, featuring post-punk New Romantics classics by acts like Siouxsie & the Banshees, Adam & the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow. (A shopping montage backed by a remix of “I Want Candy” is one of the film’s highlights.)

Consequently, nothing about this period piece feels staid or dated, despite how the presentation might rattle audiences conditioned to believe the past was a dark, dusty place where everyone spoke like they had uncomfortable sticks shoved up their asses. The pitch for this film might’ve been “The French Revolution meets Pretty in Pink.”

“We knew it was going to be controversial,” Dunst says, referring to the French audiences at Cannes as well as to audiences here that will surely bristle at the film’s tone, too. “But,” she concludes, “our film is un-ignorable, and that’s your goal in making a movie, I think.”

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