FAREWELL, MY QUEEN. Starring: Diane Kruger, Lea Seydoux, and Virginie Ledoyen. Directed by Benoit Jacquot. Rated M (Mature themes and nudity). 95 min.
This subtitled French drama is based on the novel of the same name by Chantal Thomas. It is a fictional account of Marie-Antoinette’s last three days seen through the eyes of a young servant, Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), who was reader to Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger), Queen of France. The film opened the 62nd. (2012) Berlin International Film Festival.
On the eve of the French Revolution in 1789, the Palace courtiers at Versailles lived a carefree existence, as war came closer to them. Following the storming of the Bastille, aristocrats and the servants of the court fled from the Palace and deserted the Royal Family, but Sidonie, loyal to her Queen, chose to stay by her side. The People were critical of the Queen for her extravagant life-style and her friendship with Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), which scandalised those around her. In an act of extraordinary selfishness, Marie-Antoinette orders Sidonie to disguise herself as the duchesse de Polignac to serve as a decoy so that the real Duchess can flee safely to Switzerland. Sidonie is anguished because she has been used as bait, and crosses the border safely with the Duchess, dressed as a servant. The film ends as Sidonie tells us that “soon, I will be no one”. She was only a lowly reader to the Queen.
This is a film that is directed from a feminist perspective. Sidonie willingly “indulged (the) caprices” of the Queen, and the film gives an overt lesbian focus to the relationship between the Queen and the duchesse de Polignac. It provides a tense look at the last three days of a doomed monarch, and it conveys the sweeping melodrama that gripped the court of Versailles, which was “not safe”. We are exposed to palace intrigues, but relatively little to the details of the political turmoil that gripped France at the time. What the film lacks in political intrigue, however, it makes up for in sumptuous costuming and magnificent settings. The film is a lavish production, that imbeds people within the Palace’s opulent environment very well, and it shows the cruel impact of class differences in the conversations we are exposed to in the servants’ quarters. This is a personal movie, rather than a politically satisfying one. The sexual desire of the Queen is mostly conveyed verbally, but there are explicit scenes of female nudity.
This is a film that is beautiful to look at and exposes the viewer to the intimacies lying behind regal life, including passion and yearning. It throws its focus on Sidonie, but stays away from any exploration of what keeps Sidonie loyal to the Queen. The film provides a distinctive look at a critical period in the life of a reigning Queen, who lived in splendour, while the country around her was in turmoil. It is absorbing, without being revealing.
Kruger’s acting as Marie-Antoinette dominates the movie. Her regal performance fluctuates between power and influence, and human anguish. She becomes an object of fantasy to Sidonie, but the real passion is reserved for the infatuation of the Queen with the duchesse de Polignac. The film as a whole is less concerned about actual history than with the three key women in the story, but there is an intriguing sense of the gap that lies between those who must obey, like Sidonie, and those who are born to rule, like Marie-Antoinette.
There has been much that has been written, and filmed, about Marie-Antoinette, and this movie differs from most in attempting to say something private about the life of Marie-Antoinette. It is movie that provides a rich tapestry, but despite its sumptuous look, the film is more impressive in style than in substance. The manifestations of regal power and privilege never really come to grips with the reality of life that existed outside the bedchamber of the Queen.
This is a film that is worth looking at, because it gives a captivating picture of royal artifice. Escape from reality is evident everywhere in what the film’s Director, Benoit Jacquot, lays before you. It is a film to be admired, but Jacquot’s controlled direction hints of a soul that seems to lie somewhere else.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out June 6th 2013.