(Lea Seydoux, above)
By Richard von Busack
Remember that Versailles-Barbie vision of Marie-Antoinette, purported by Sofia Coppola a few years back? It’s quite swept away by Benoit Jacquot’s intense Farewell, My Queen. (Farewell, My Queen tickets and showtimes here.)
Lea Seydoux is Sedonie, a minor aide to Marie-Antoinette. She’s essentially a servant: a girl who sometimes reads to Her Majesty. Sedonie takes this duty seriously, in hopes of escaping a life as an embroiderer. (Sedonie has facility with the needle and thread, but she hates the work.)
Because of the heat, the labor, and the crisis about to break out, Sidonie doesn’t get any sleep; she’s stumbling with exhaustion. These four days in her life are like a walking nightmare.
Sedonie lives at Versailles, but the accommodations aren’t much. Farewell, My Queen takes place July 14-18, 1789. The court is sweating through the humidity of summer. The denizens are eaten by mosquitoes and lice, and the palace is wracked by thunderstorms. Dead rats keep turning up, as if a plague is about to break out.
Like anyone who lives at a royal court, Sedonie is by nature a spy. She ferrets out the news being kept from the rest of the nobles. It’s bad news. The Bastille has fallen. Paris is alight with the first stage of the French Revolution.
But Sedonie’s real obsession is the Queen herself. Seydoux’s Sedonie is ravishing, but she has arctic eyes. Her pitiless gaze, as well as some careful, equivocal scripting, makes it difficult to tell what exactly Sedonie feels about her queen.
Does Sedonie love Her Majesty for the woman she is, or is it for the power the Queen possesses…or is it a simple lesbian passion for the royal flesh? Sedonie’s feelings heats up when she learns that the Queen is in love with another woman: the equally diffident Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).
As Marie-Antoinette, Diane Kruger (above) is impressive: golden, silky and petulant. Farewell, My Queen is sometimes historically sketchy. The actual queen was a matron in 1789; her 7-year-old son, the Dauphin, had died of TB one month previously.
But what makes Farewell, My Queen believable is the way Kruger embodies a worshipful girl’s vision of a queen. And ultimately there’s a reverse angle on the queen’s golden glow: in this telling, Marie-Antoinette is a looter, a schemer and a thorough bitch.
Jacquot frames Farewell, My Queen as if for TV, with many close-ups. The royal appearances provide some rare moments of open space: the general sense is of cramped, always-supervised living. The camera is carried along with the flow of alarmed courtiers, through the dark halls and staircases of Versailles. They nobles are like cattle in a chute. The palace is restless, simmering. It’s full of rumor and murmurs, and the catastrophic clanging of church bells.
Farewell, My Queen is further tightened by yet another fine soundtrack by Bruno Coulais (Book of Kells, Coraline); there are hints of Bernard Herrmann in the sinister strings.
The engrossing, good-looking film is fascinating counter-programming to The Dark Knight Rises; the two films’ senses of rotten, doomed societies harmonize.