Fascinating, frustrating ‘Farewell’
"Farewell my Queen"
Updated: August 13, 2012 3:45PM
★ ★ ★
While there’s fascination in the idea that great historical events can be understood from the fresh perspective of lowly bystanders — what might Napoleon’s third-assistant valet, for example, have made of Waterloo? — there’s a fair amount of built-in frustration as well.
Both are very much evident in “Farewell, My Queen,” a revisionist, servant’s-eye view of Marie Antoinette’s final days of power and privilege that turns a minor lady-in-waiting into the drama’s main character, without providing much illumination, ultimately, about her or her beloved royal employer.
However, the point of view she provides about downstairs and back-stairs life during the queen’s final days at Versailles offers considerably more substance than Sofia Coppola’s frivolous, New Age “Marie Antoinette.”
The first film in several years to be released by the veteran French writer/director Benoit Jacquot (“A Single Girl”), “Farewell, My Queen” opens with young Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux, the female assassin of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”) waking in her tiny cell of a room to the chiming of a golden clock worth several lifetimes of her salary, and rushing to the bedchamber of Marie Antoinette (former German supermodel Diane Kruger).
Sidonie is the queen’s reader, who reads aloud from novels and plays and occasionally engages in impassioned line readings from stage romances with the queen. Her job gives her an unusually intimate acquaintance with Marie Antoinette, and it’s clear that she has a fiercely protective love for the queen, as well as the hidden ambition to perhaps become one of her special favorites — along the same lines as Marie Antoinette’s scandalous (and, in this treatment, blatantly lesbian) love affair with the Countess Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).
Of course, events conspire against her.
The film opens on July 13, 1789, the day before the storming of the Bastille, and Jacquot proceeds from establishing the rot at the heart of life in Versailles (represented by mosquitoes rising from the stagnant swamp providing the palace drinking water and by the dead rats in every nook and cranny) to revealing the panic and cowardice and shifting allegiances that consume the court as rumors spread of the peasant uprising.
A large part of the plot is devoted to capable, no-nonsense Sidonie’s efforts to learn the truth about the revolution, swapping favors for information, and doing all she can to protect her queen, though Marie Antoinette’s seeming affection for her eventually proves to be a cruel illusion.
Jacquot has long been known for his skill at directing actresses, and the performances of Kruger (whose Marie Antoinette is more confused and overwhelmed than let-them-eat-cake arrogant), Seydoux and Ledoyen are this film’s greatest strengths, along with his rare privilege of being allowed to film on location in Versailles.
Unfortunately, while “Farewell, My Queen” begins with the briskness and intelligence Sidonie provides, it gradually loses its drive and focus, partially because her perspective is so severely limited. She witnesses important events, but only from far out on the margins, except for her occasional intimate interactions with the queen. At points, the story can only proceed with dramatic insights that she has literally dreamed, and which may or may not be true.
As a result, “Farewell, My Queen” is up-close and personal, but also oddly detached and un-engaging. We can only see what Sidonie sees and feel what she feels and, in the end, while intriguing, that’s not quite enough.