ART TIMES 2009: Young Royals, Subtly Drawn

We'd be ever so pleased if you'd join us at the coronation

Man, French people. They are pretty good at directing movies.

This is what I thought after I watched Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Young Victoria, an unexpectedly nuanced, well-drawn period piece about Queen Victoria in her 17th and 18th years of life.

Imagine my surprise when I did a little recherche on the director and realized that Jean-Marc had directed Quebecois coming-of-age flick C.R.A.Z.Y. Jean-Marc ain’t no Frenchie, he’s Canadian! And for days after I saw his most recent movie, my friends and I were waxing poetic about the soft, adept touch of the French. We admired the directorial restraint, the subtlety involved in making as delicate a movie about as gargantuan a personage; we lauded his ability to avoid obviousness at all costs; etc. And then Jean-Marc had to go and ruin all our Gallic stereotyping with his Canadianness.

I saw C.R.A.Z.Y. almost 4 years ago in France. Apparently, French people have a hard time understanding les Quebecois, and this French-language movie was subtitled… in French. Ha. The film centers on a teenager, Zach, who is a bit of a space oddity in his very Catholic, traditional, suburban family home. Lots of friction between father and son ensues. Son wants to just live rocknroll, dad says he has to get a real job. It was the kind of movie that makes you laugh, cry, etc, and mainly illustrates the saving power of music (Bowie, Pink Floyd, 70s stuff like that, specifically) to a young teenage soul.

C.R.A.Z.Y. didn’t get much press States-side, or probably anywhere, but it was mosdef one of those movies that actually conveys an understanding of what it’s like to be 17. Luckily for us, Jean-Marc applied this understanding to The Young Victoria, and made one of the most excellent and yet understated movies about growing up that came out last year. Move over, langorous youth of New Moon and magical adolescents of HP: The Half Blood Prince.

Remember all the hullabaloo about Marie Antoinette? It features a no wave soundtrack! And pretty young American things! Ooh, so unconventional! Sofia Coppola aimed to repaint the young French royals as young Gossip Girl cast members. And sure, that movie was totally pretty, but it was also totally uncompelling. The danger of portraying vapid shit is becoming the vapid shit.

Coppola’s mistake was to conceptualize history within the trappings of our contemporary understanding of glamour; therefore, she didn’t latch onto anything essential or important, either in Marie’s time or ours. Maybe that was the point–but still, glamour is all relative, so the movie was all fluff, or to be precise, mille-fueille icing.

Jean-Marc Vallee, fortunately, chose the opposite path for his period piece. Of course, he made a pretty movie. But he latched on to the only things that are always essential: love, family, power struggles, and the life of the mind. And then he applied these essential life factors to the young royals in his film (Victoria and Albert, specifically), and what he came up with was a totally plausible, sympathetic and yes, even TIMELESS portrayal of what it is to come of age and also be royalty.

To sum up the plot: Victoria is the heir to the English throne but her uncle, the king, (played memorably as a fizzle-headed jolly old chap by Jim Broadbent) is going to be dead soon. Lots of other people want the power Victoria is about to inherit; they jostle. King dies. Victoria is queened, but she’s been sheltered all her life, so has to learn how not to get swindled, and fast. She finds a cute indie rock boyfriend from Belgium, they write letters (probably drawing cute owls in the margins), get married, lose virginities. Victoria gets swindled a couple times, blushes, learns from it, moves on, rules England. Fin.

This movie doesn’t pretend to be more than it is; it’s just about one lady’s very momentary struggle to find her voice amongst a chorus of manly voices. It’s about having butterflies in your stomach when your new Belgian boyfriend touches your hand. It’s sometimes even a little bit about pretty dresses, and it doesn’t touch imperialism with a stick. But still, ultimately this movie is about politics, both personal and political, and how to balance those two spheres… specifically, how to balance these spheres with a pearly glow in your English cheeks, while a golden hue is cast over everything by some excellent Polish cinematographer… you get the idea. Go see this movie, you won’t be disappointed.

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