"Farewell, My Queen" is an earthy, intimate take on one of history's most iconic women, Marie Antoinette.
Almost as soon as the queen (played, fittingly, by Germanic actress Diane Kruger) appears, the screen sizzles. I was struck by how director Benoit Jacquot communicates the woman's raw charm and sexual magnetism.
Soon, however, it becomes clear that Jacquot did not have mere charisma on his mind. His Marie Antoinette is as some of the nastiest rumors of the day had her: a lesbian who had affairs with other married women. One can argue the historical accuracy of rumor, I suppose. No matter what you think of this modern retelling, there's no denying that Jacquot's French film is intensely beautiful, even as it makes the effort to show the ugliness of the palace. I'm not talking about royal intrigues; rats, for example, float dead in the royal waterway.
|'Farewell, My Queen'|
|3 out of 4 stars|
|Stars: Diane Kruger, Lea Seydoux, Virginie Ledoyen|
|Director: Benoit Jacquot|
|Rated: R for brief graphic nudity and language|
|Running time: 100 minutes|
But the film opens with a singular piece of beauty: a clock. The gilt item stands out from its grey surroundings. Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux) has been lent the timepiece from Versailles itself. It's meant to help the reader to the queen make her appointments on time. But Sidonie's role within the royal household is about to change. It is July 1789, and word soon arrives, though no one can be sure of its veracity, that the Bastille has been stormed back in Paris.
"We're perfectly safe here at Versailles," one character says. But then, the queen herself seems oblivious at first to the danger. She has Sidonie read her fashion magazines after she dismisses her best friend and, in this telling, lover, Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). But the younger Sidonie proves an even better distraction. "Pretty little arm, perfectly pudgy," the queen says on examining Sidonie's mosquito bites. Sidonie, who as a woman able to read and write in that era must have been intelligent, doesn't hold the seemingly frivolous queen's distractions against her. "I know how the queen can stare at her finery for hours. That's when she forgets she's queen."
Based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, this is a film in which people are constantly whispering into each other's ears. First it's naughty words and lighthearted gossip, then more. We read about the Revolution now as one of history's biggest stories. But those who lived it, Jacquot reminds us, were human beings much like us, with petty grievances and grand passions.