The immediate impact of the Bastille’s fall on the French royal court is portrayed from the perspective of a servant to Marie Antoinette in Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen.” Though filmed at the sumptuous palace of Versailles outside Paris, where the doomed King Louis XVI lived with his family and huge entourage, the feel of the film is, apart from a few outdoor sequences, claustrophobic. That’s true even in scenes shot in large rooms—which most are not, instead being situated in smallish chambers or cramped hallways. The effect is to give one the impression of the world closing in irrevocably on people who will shortly be no more.
The audience surrogate over the days between July 14 and 17, 1789, is Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), the queen’s “reader,” who spares the royal personage the trouble of perusing texts herself by reciting them aloud. Called to her majesty’s residence in the small castle of Petit Trianon whenever the mood strikes by the queen’s lady-in-waiting Madame Campan (Noemie Lvovsky), Sidonie is extraordinarily devoted to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), who spends most of her time lounging about, considering patterns for new dresses and dithering over her infatuation with the beautiful Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), whose fate, in the end, concerns her more than that of her husband the king. Louis (Xavier Beauvois) is glimpsed only briefly, but is portrayed as a man resigned to be taken into custody by the rebels in order to maintain peace, even though his brothers advise firmer action—as does the queen, who briefly prepares to flee the palace for Metz, where loyal troops can be recruited.
The reaction of the royals, along with those of palace hangers-on like Sidonie’s elderly scholar-friend Monsieur Moreau (Michel Robin), is shown, however, only in bits and pieces as overheard, or in some cases sought out, by the reader. And her time is spent not only trying to find out what’s happening beyond the gates, but performing the tasks assigned her by others (she’s an expert seamstress and is called upon to prepare an embroidery the queen is interested in) and observing members of the king’s retinue, like licentious churchmen and elderly noblemen anxious about their own futures. She also takes time for a brief flirtation with Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), a handsome gondolier whose eye she catches, though in the rush of events little comes of it.
“Farewell, My Queen” will be of special interest to history buffs, who will appreciate the authentic locations as well as the “behind-the-scenes” character, which offers an alternative to the more action-oriented treatments of the French Revolution one ordinarily encounters. But the script is largely speculative, based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, and should certainly not be taken as authoritative, though it uses known episodes as chronological linchpins.
But if the picture is suspect as history, as drama it offers a fascinating portrait of the Ancien Regime decaying in the face of new “Enlightened” thinking. Its constricted, fragmentary character actually helps to convey how events moved clumsily and uncertainly toward an end that now might seem foreordained but in reality was utterly contingent on many factors, some of them intensely personal.
And within that context it fashions some intriguing characters. Laborde remains a rather opaque presence, as does Gabrielle, though Seydoux and Ledoyen capture the externals expertly, and the final sequence in which they both appears adds another layer of ambiguity to the mix. Kruger paints a portrait of Marie Antoinette as a flighty, easily distracted person, but also one painfully devoted to a younger woman and with more than a hint of royal spine, if not great intelligence. But in many respects it’s the incidental figures who make the strongest impressions—not so much Beauvois’ Louis, who’s more statue than flesh-and-blood, but the many lesser folk congregating in Versailles through the turmoil, terrified at what the future might bring. Jacquot has assembled the supporting cast carefully, and uses them craftily to create some haunting tableaux of an epoch’s death throes.
The director and his crew—led by cinematographer Romain Winding—have also beautifully recreated the milieu of 1789 Versailles. Special mention should be made of the work of costume designers Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux, who have clothed the entire cast—from the royals to the lowliest scullery servants—with exquisite care.
“Farewell, My Queen” isn’t perfect, but it’s infinitely preferable to the last major film set in the late Bourbon court, Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” a misbegotten mistake that attempted to make the royal court a reflection of modern political foolishness by turning the characters into a bunch of bumbling airheads. Jacquot’s cramped but telling take has a lot more to say about the era than that failed satire.