Farewell, My Queen

Carole Bethuel/Berlin International Film Festival

Benoit Jacquot gives a haughty servant's-eye view of Marie Antoinette's seductive world.

Set in the heady (in the sense of pre-guillotined) final days of Versailles amid the commotion of the dawning French Revolution, Farewell, My Queen is a visual joy, even while its tale of a lower-class girl at court infatuated with the queen of France labors to say something relevant. Although director Benoit Jacquot opts for the grand European style of Girl With a Pearl Earring rather than a modernist rereading a la Sofia Coppola's post-punk vision Marie Antoinette, the film has its own charm, a matter-of-fact treatment of lesbianism and magnifique costumes and settings guaranteed to please Upper East Side patrons, all of which suggests a wide art house release for this lavish French-Spanish co-production.

Based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, the concise screenplay traces the routing of France's 18th century aristocracy from both the perspective of the decadent bluebloods themselves and the point of view of their downstairs maids, who are smartly individualized and believable. Maybe the film's biggest intuition is casting the brooding, modern face of Lea Seydoux (Inglourious Basterds, Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol) in the role of Sidonie Laborde, the haughty young reader to Marie Antoinette who becomes embroiled in the queen's love affair with Mme. de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).

Living in the forlorn poverty of the servants' quarters, the girl is thrilled to be called into the presence of the beautiful, glamorous Marie, played with teary-eyed passion and more than a touch of laughable frivolity by a charismatic Diane Kruger. When the queen massages rosewater into the itching mosquito bites on Sidonie's arm, the young girl is sensually captivated. But the relationship is not what she hopes for. "So young and already so blind," comments the delightful M. Moreau (Michel Robin), a wise old gent living at court, foreshadowing the film's cruel-as-ice conclusion.

Locked in their fantasy world at Versailles, in whose mirrored and gilded halls much of the film was shot, the wiggy nobles go about business as usual: adultery, food, clothes, jewels and embroidery. Jacquot sets the scene in less than 20 minutes before the enjoyably idyllic tone changes to one of red alert. Word that things are seriously amiss reaches the court with news that the Bastille has fallen, and the rebelling populace is demanding not just bread but power. In Paris, a list has been drawn up of 286 aristocrat heads set to roll. And people on the street not only have stopped showing respect for the king, many are waving pitchforks and torches in his direction. It's July 14, 1789, and within days their world will be turned upside down.

While Coppola ruminated on the role of pleasure in life, Jacquot shifts the focus to the relationship between the wildly divergent classes of French society and the way they spy on, fantasize about and interact with each other. The two truly noble souls to emerge are, first, the courageous and resourceful Sidonie, whose misplaced loyalty and conscious self-sacrifice distinguish her from a stereotypical romantic heroine; and Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois in little more than a walk-on role), whose surprising choice to return to Paris on his own and face down the insurrection puts him way above the cowardly fugitives in his court.

Lavish, Vermeer-influenced lighting by cinematographer Romain Winding stands in interesting formal contrast to the relaxed, constantly moving camerawork that follows Sidonie as she runs and falls awkwardly in her cumbersome gown on breathless errands. The eye-catching production design by Katia Wyszkop and unique period costumes by Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux will be remembered during next awards season.

The urgent pace is underscored by a nearly continuous musical comment by Bruno Coulais, which assumes the weight of a ballet score as the dancers, or in this case the cast, rush to their doom.

Cast Diane Kruger, Lea Seydoux, Virginie Ledoyen, Xavier Beauvois
Director Benoit Jacquot
Screenwriters Gilles Taurand, Benoit Jacquot, based on a novel by Chantal Thomas
No MPAA rating, 100 minutes

 

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