17 September 2012 | howard.schumann
More about seduction, loyalty, and betrayal than social upheaval
Written and directed by Benoît Jacquot and based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, Farewell, My Queen explores the death throes of the French monarchy over a period of three days in July, 1789. Set in the Palace of Versailles at the beginning of the French Revolution, Sidonie (Lea Seydoux), known as the reader for Queen Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger), is responsible for selecting books and reading them aloud to the queen. Because of her closeness to the monarch, she is able to act as a spy, securing information about events taking place inside and outside the palace, pressing selected servants for information, and eavesdropping on conversations to gather the most up-to-date gossip to pass along to Marie.
The film is seen from Sidonie's point of view, a vantage point that illuminates the sharp social divisions inside the palace with the servants living in crowded rat-infested quarters, and the royals dwelling in opulent accommodations. Lea Seydoux delivers a powerful performance as the devoted servant of the queen, conveying an air of mystery about who she really is in a way that adds to her allure. Kruger portrays Marie-Antoinette as sensual and hedonistic and there is a hint of more than Platonism in the way she interacts with both Sidonie and the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), a relationship that tests Sidonie's loyalty.
On the morning of July 15th, news spreads rapidly that the king had been awakened at two in the morning. No one knows the reason, but fear spreads throughout the court. If the king is ill, who will protect those totally dependent on the nobles who control their lives? It is soon revealed, however, that the king is not ill, but that a mob has stormed the Bastille and a revolt has begun against the aristocracy. Little information is available. Rumors abound based only on conversations whispered in the hallways and the servant's quarters. When the King travels to Paris and the Queen decides against an escape to Metz, an aura of inevitably descends on the Palace and the nobles begin to abandon ship, competing for places on the coaches seeking a safe haven.
Antoinette makes every effort to continue with business as usual, looking at magazines to admire new styles and colors for the coming season, paying scant attention to the fact that her name is number one in a list of 300 targets for the guillotine. Fearful of losing her only connection to the world, Sidonie is willing to risk the ultimate sacrifice if it is in the queen's best interest. Even though Farewell, My Queen is historically questionable and may hold us at arms length emotionally, it provides a fresh view of events that we know about only from history books or stuffy costume dramas.
Jacquot captures the authenticity of time and place and also the human side of the power struggle. Unfortunately, the film pays little attention to the issues that led to the revolt, never mentioning the abuse of power by the monarchy. Indeed, the Revolution serves only as a backdrop for the story which is more about seduction, loyalty, and betrayal than social upheaval. Rather than making a statement that is relevant for our times, the intricacies of sexual intrigue and love triangles dominate the film, titillating rather than persuading, and making the goings on difficult to care about.