[11 February 2013]
Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, is one of the most discussed characters in history, yet the movies have rarely done her any favors, or at least they haven’t helped define who she really was. She was played as a shrill romantic by MGM superstar Norma Shearer in the late ‘30s, but the movie itself was too glossy to shed new light on a woman who was executed after being accused of high treason during the French Revolution. In recent years she was played as a calculating mastermind by Joely Richardson in the forgettable The Affair of the Necklace and more prominently by a luminous Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette which imagined her as a confused teenager with a penchant for anachronistic shoes.
The Austrian-born queen has fascinated generation after generation, with most people finding it easy to condemn the decadent reign of her husband. Farewell, My Queen is not that different either, but at least it approaches the queen from a fresh angle: through the eyes of one of her servants. Léa Seydoux—dripping with erotic naiveté—plays Sidonie Laborde, a young maid who has been chosen by the Queen herself as her personal reader. The film opens on the eve of the French Revolution, just as the Bastille has been taken and courtesans and aristocrats begin to flee Versailles.
Seemingly oblivious to the situation, the Queen (played brilliantly by a charmingly disenchanted Diane Kruger) demands that nothing changes and shows joyous offense when Sidonie asks if she should read from the letters of a former monarch. The Queen asks Sedonie to do small favors, all of which lead the young woman to develop a crush on her and refuse to consider leaving the palace.
The camera follows Sedonie everywhere she goes, allowing us to perceive the environment through her innocent eyes. As imagined by director Benoît Jacquot (who co-wrote the screenplay with Chantal Thomas who wrote the book that inspired the movie) Sedonie becomes an audience surrogate, giving us access to places we otherwise would’ve never seen. Through her anxious vision we discover a Versailles that crumbles under the pressure of something they don’t understand and certainly can’t fathom. As the court disintegrates, Sedonie is led to believe that she is to become unconditional to the Queen and begins to think she’s becoming part of her most trusted circle.
Yet scene after scene the movie proves to us just how blind Sedonie choses to be, as she falls victim to the whims of a woman who might not have even been aware of the pain she caused others. In what was an obvious strike of genius casting, Kruger’s contribution to the cinematic lore of Marie Antoinette might be the most effective performance of the Queen committed to screen. She is seen as being made out of light, who can’t help but attract others towards her, only to burn them. We see her longing as she craves the attention of the mysterious Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) who the movie suggests might’ve been her lover, but Kruger doesn’t allow the character to become a historical closeted lesbian, instead she plays her as a being who simply didn’t know how to take no for an answer.
If Seydoux’s wallflower-ish qualities fall victim to Kruger’s undeniable star presence, it might’ve been a directorial flaw, since soon we start craving to see more of the Queen, as well. The movie suggests that its entire structure is supposed to be about how Sedonie goes from virginal servant to more knowledgeable woman, yet every scene without Kruger feels empty. Like other movies before it, Farewell, My Queen promises much more than it can deliver. It doesn’t try to “humanize” Marie Antoinette but it’s too cowardly to condemn her too, and while movies shouldn’t precisely judge their characters, they should serve as something more than elaborate dioramas.
The Cohen Group have done a superb job in bringing Jacquot’s movie to home media. The Blu-ray release is absolutely sumptuous, with a transfer that makes the art direction and cinematography almost steal the show from the actors and the story.
Included as bonus features are a couple of interviews with Jacquot, who proves to be much more provocative and fascinating than his movie. In one of the interviews he goes into detail about how exciting it was to be allowed to film inside Versailles, a sense of historical obligation pervading in each directorial decision he took. Another interview has him reveal how he dislikes Coppola’s take on Marie Antoinette which makes for a funny moment. Even if the film lets much to be desired, particularly in its confusing insight with timid sensationalism, the Blu-ray release must be seen if only to allow yourself the pleasure of watching a movie shot with hedonistic abandon.