The perils of trying too hard to make a period film relevant to contemporary sensibilities are more than apparent in Sofia Coppola’s misbegotten third feature, a comic portrait of the wife of the king toppled by the French Revolution that’s sort of like “Clueless” transported to the grounds of Versailles. “Marie Antoinette” could easily have been titled “Portrait of the Queen as an Airhead.”

To be sure, the picture looks wonderful. The locations are magnificent, and the physical detail (production design by KK Barrett, art direction by Anne Seibel, set decoration by Veronique Meiburg and costumes by Milena Canonero) is wonderful. It’s a pity that Lance Acord’s cinematography doesn’t measure up to what he’s shooting–the camerawork is too often jittery and unsteady, and sometimes blurred for “artistic” effect. And at times budgetary exigencies show: the beginnings of the revolution are portrayed through some bad piped-in crowd noises and a small band of rebels brandishing torches and pitchforks, looking rather like a group bussed in from the set of “Young Frankenstein.”

Still, the picture is visually strong. It’s the storytelling approach that’s the problem. As scripted by Coppola (based on a piece of popular history by the prolific Antonia Fraser), the picture covers the twenty-year period from 1769, when the fourteen-year old Austrian princess was wed to the fifteen-year old dauphin Louis in an arranged political marriage, to 1789, when the revolution was stirring to life and the rulers were compelled to leave Versailles for Paris. It’s thus not about the French Revolution at all, but about the two decades leading up to it, including the fifteen years of Louis XVI’s rule (he succeeded his grandfather Louis XV in 1774); and the theme is one of monarchical insularity–the royals living in the closed bubble of Versailles and Petit Trianon–and of the obliviousness of the young couple to the realities of the world around them. So there’s absolutely no suggestion of the power of Enlightenment thought, or of the serious economic problems facing the crown (the only reference in this respect is one to the drain on the royal treasury represented by support of the American Revolution); and there’s certainly not the slightest indication that the royal bureaucracy was, in fact, trying to find ways to restructure the tax system and stabilize crown finances–as in fact they were.

The focus instead is on purely “domestic” matters, with an emphasis on off-handed ineptitude and absurdly hide-bound tradition. So the first major sequence involves an elaborate ritual in which young Marie (Kirsten Dunst) must strip off every vestige of her Austrian background–including clothes and her beloved pooch–and be reclothed on her official entrance into France before being presented to her befuddled husband-to-be (Jason Schwartzman); and thereafter we’re treated to repeated scenes of the ridiculously complicated ritual according to which she’s awoken and clothed each morning with full court participation. The dauphin’s raffish grandfather Louis XV (Rip Torn), almost always accompanied by his crude mistress Du Barry (Asia Argento), is interested only in the youngsters presenting him with an heir one generation removed, and so the dauphin’s standoffishness or clumsiness in bed becomes another regular motif, leading to political ramifications and disdain from the nobility until Marie’s brother, the emperor of Austria (Danny Huston) intervenes to give Louis some direction about sex–an imperial couples counselor, as it were. Finally a daughter is born, followed eventually by a son. But the royal couple, oblivious to the larger political scene, grow increasingly profligate (cue montage after montage of the high life), with Marie bearing the brunt of the public outrage, until suddenly the revolution is at their doorstep. And there the picture ends, with the family’s fate left up in the air, though we all know (at least in general terms) what happened to them.

This is obviously a blinkered perspective on the road to revolt, but it’s a defensible take on the subject–the idea that the naive, bumbling rulers, shut off in their private world, were so blind to reality that they had no idea of what was bubbling around them until it was too late. (So Coppola has Louis XVI say, upon hearing of his grandfather’s death, “We are too young to rule.”) But in dramatizing the theme, she chooses to turn the characters into modern caricatures, with Marie the giggly teen thrown into a position of responsibility for which she’s inadequately prepared and the younger Louis a shy, introverted figure equally unready to wear a crown. (To draw a comparison to another current film, “The Queen,” she might be compared to Princess Diana and both of them contrasted with Elizabeth II, who embraced her destined role early and gave it everything she could.)

Given this “modernization” of Marie and Louis, it’s not surprising that neither Dunst nor Schwartzman makes the slightest effort to affect an accent or appear as anything other than twenty-first century Americans apart from the costumes they wear. Neither does Torn, playing Louis XVI as an uncouth rake (hardly a historically accurate depiction), or Argento, or almost anyone else. July Davis, who exudes hauteur as the countess who acts as Marie’s chief attendant, and Huston, as her slick brother, break the mold. But casting people like Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson and Steve Coogan, the first two as noble ladies and the last as the Austrian ambassador to France, further undermines any possible period sense–as does the director’s choice of music, which mixes authentic baroque excerpts with modern pop tunes, even juxtaposing a ballroom minuet against a rock-ish number only slightly more discreet than the one in “A Knight’s Tale.” The performers do what they can given the approach, but they never seem anything more than modern people doing dress-up in what might be a high-school spoof. Dunst is endlessly lovely and Schwartzman convincingly goofy, and Torn is–as he’s sometime not been recently–a crowd-pleaser. But they, like almost all the rest, remain vaudeville figures rather than anything resembling living, breathing people.

Maybe Coppola has some deep purpose in mind with “Marie Antoinette.” Perhaps she intends a commentary on today’s Washington leaders courting disaster by insulating themselves from facts and living in a dream world of their own making. But if so, she hasn’t found a way of communicating the message effectively. “Marie Antoinette” is rather like its heroine–extremely pretty to look at but rather simple-minded.