RELEASE DATE: 06/06/2013
RUN TIME: 1HR 40MIN
Agathe-Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young woman living in service at Versailles, has been appointed as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). When commanded, she waits upon the Queen and reads to her from whatever volume she recommends. But this is July 1789, and within days, rumours begin to spread around court that the people have taken the Bastille and are marching on the palace, with the royal family in their sights. Before her eyes, Sidone watches the palace fall apart, its inhabitants fleeing in fear of their lives. Her only concern, however, is for her Queen, whom she has begun to care about in a manner transcending that of servant and master...
Jacquot’s film stands above its predecessors partly thanks to a killer premise, that the French monarch may have engaged in lesbian relationships with women in court, especially Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). Where it truly excels, however, is in placing the lovesick Sidone as its protagonist, rather than the Queen herself. She is the enigma, the perfect vision that’s always just out of reach - not just for Sidone, but us, the audience, just as intoxicated by her. Everything about ‘Farewell, My Queen’ is calibrated for expressing the supressed sexual obsession the young girl has for the Queen, causing the stolid tropes of costume drama to fall away and be replaced by something more akin to a psychological sexual thriller. The craft behind the film is ravishing, but again, not just for its costumes and production design, but for Romain Winding’s cinematography and the editing from Luc Barnier and Nelly Ollivault. Its rhythms and visual style are more akin to French New Wave; snap cuts are coupled with intense and sudden close-ups, all geared towards increasing the sexual and political tension in the film. Refreshingly, the wonders of Versailles are relegated to environment rather than being a character itself, and long steady-cam shots place us within the action and lend the film a strong sense of intimacy. Character study is at the forefront for Jacquot, who adapted Chantal Thomas’ novel with Gilles Taurand. Where there usually would be opulence and excess, there is economy and great intelligence, making this one of the best examinations of this defining historical moment we’ve seen.
This would all be for naught, however, if it weren’t for its performances. Léa Seydoux is absolutely stellar as Sidone, a French star in the making. Where others would have gone for obvious girlish passion, Seydoux’s performance is as cold as ice and as strong as iron. Nothing is revealed in her angelic face, even as she conspires to find ways to win the Queen’s affections and place herself in a position as her saviour. This is an incredibly intelligent performance, and the film benefits greatly from it. What makes Seydoux’s performance even more impressive, however, is the perfect balance it strikes with Diane Kruger as Antoinette. Kruger is passionate and flighty and emotional in all the ways that Seydoux is cold and silent and closed, but more importantly, she presents another side to the legendary monarch we aren’t used to - that of a highly intelligent woman in a position of genuine power and influence. Diane Kruger has long asserted herself as a powerful and intelligent actor, and this film gives her the chance to really let herself go, especially in the stirring final act, where Antoinette faces her fate head-on and refuses to accept it. She might not be on-screen for long, but when she is, the film becomes even more dynamic. Sidone and Antoinette are two sides of the same coin, and as the two come closer, the chemistry becomes even more electric, making their scenes together the real highlights of the film. Add to this mix the ravishingly pompous Virginie Ledoyen as de Polignac, a woman of position using the Queen’s girlish crush on her to her advantage, and you have a most bizarre and intriguing love triangle.
For all its sexual and psychological tension, ‘Farewell, My Queen’ still concerns itself very much with the weight of history.
For all its sexual and psychological tension, ‘Farewell, My Queen’ still concerns itself very much with the weight of history, of a world and a way of life literally disappearing in a matter of days. It doesn’t place you in a position of judgement or sympathy for the aristocrats; instead as an observer, a watchful eye with the foreknowledge of the impending demise. Rather than the candy-coloured fantasies of Sophia Coppola’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ (2006), we see a Versailles coming apart at the seams, noblemen fainting at the prospect of assassination, families escaping in disguise by the dead of night. For once, the threat of revolution is palpable and very real in a way most films haven’t been able to capture, and the narrative in the foreground enhances our understanding and reading of the historical narrative occurring around it. This is a far more useful and effective way to approach history - a single, personal story rather than attempting to encompass an event in its entirety. We understand why France is about to topple, but we understand the hysteria and fear that comes while it does so. It’s a real credit to Jacquot that this balance is so powerful and effective.
‘Farewell, My Queen’ is one of those daring films that just makes all the right decisions, an intriguing psychological sexual thrill-ride free from the shackles of historical period costume dramas. There is an immediacy to the film, top-notch modern filmmaking married with an historical event it isn’t afraid to take risks recreating, and coupled with breathtaking performances from a terrific female ensemble. And then there’s that great premise: a view of a famous figure we think we know so well, from an angle we never expect. There’s something Hitchcocknian about ‘Farewell, My Queen’, and that’s both a great compliment to it, and the last compliment anyone would have expected to give it. This might be the film about Marie Antoinette we’ve been hoping for.