By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2012)
From family trees the dukes do swing: Farewell, My Queen.
Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen is the type of period film that critics love, because it gives them carte blanche to drop descriptive phrases like “handsomely mounted” and “sumptuously detailed” with abandon. OK, so it is a handsomely mounted, sumptuously detailed period film that achieves verisimilitude by occasionally soiling the hem of its petticoats with (to paraphrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) “lovely” (and authentic!) 18th century filth.
That’s exactly what happens when an otherwise poised young lady named Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) goes unceremoniously ass over teakettle while scurrying to attend to the whims of one Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). The year is 1789, and that would be the same Marie Antoinette who was Queen of France at the time. As any history major would tell you, 1789 wasn’t the best year to have that particular gig. Indeed, it is July of 1789, and there’s a sizable coterie of disgruntled (and filthy!) 99 per centers days away from donning tri-corner hats and brandishing pitchforks to storm the Bastille.
But the Queen currently has more pressing concerns. For example, where oh where is her “finery book”? She’s just had an epiphany for a new dress design, while Sidonie (her personal reader) reads an article aloud to her from a fashion magazine as Marie wistfully ogles the pictures (you have to understand, they didn’t have cable back then). You are probably getting the picture that, despite the fomenting revolution on the streets of Paris, life within the Société Particulière de la Reine is continuing unabated. At least at first glance.
Through Sidonie’s eyes (she is one of the Queen’s primary “ladies in waiting”) we are given an upstairs/downstairs peek at the doings at Versailles during the waning days of the French monarchy. In the drawing rooms, it’s all curtsies and hushed deference, but as we move farther out of royal earshot and closer to the servant’s quarters, gossip and rumors rule (as well as furtive bodice-ripping).
It’s nearly impossible to observe the disconnect of these privileged aristocrats carrying on in their gilded bubble while the impoverished and disenfranchised rabble sharpen up the guillotines without drawing parallels with our current state of affairs (history, if nothing else, is cyclical). The director seems sharp enough to “know that we know” this already, so he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. His screenplay (co-written by Gilles Taurand) manages to contemporize the emotional life of the characters, whilst managing to avoid the anachronistic conceits that plagued Sofia Coppola’s 2006 misfire, Marie Antoinette.
The film is carried primarily through earthy, believable performances fby Seydoux and Kruger (who also worked together in Inglourious Basterds). Kruger conveys Marie’s spoiled frivolousness, but avoids broad caricature; there’s a resigned melancholy lurking beneath the veneer, adding an interesting layer to her performance. Kruger’s subtlety is particularly highlighted in a memorable scene where she confides to Seydoux regarding her “special” friendship with Gabrielle de Polignac (a duchess in the Queen’s court rumored to have been her lover). The dialog is strictly innuendo, but Kruger’s delivery and facial expressions say it all (it’s quite reminiscent of Laurence Oliver’s infamous “snails and oysters” conversation with Tony Curtis in Spartacus). This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this story, and it won’t be the last, but somehow…I never tire of watching the oligarchy crumble (pass the popcorn!).