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The End Is Near

by Ann Morrow on September 13, 2012

Farewell My Queen
Directed by Benoit Jacquot



On July 14, 1789, the inconceivable happened: The people of Paris rose up and stormed the Bastille. But as dire as this revolutionary act would seem, it took the cosseted nobles within the opulent confines of Versailles hours and days to read the writing on the wall. Actually, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) was only reading her finery book of dress patterns, and being read escapist literature by her court reader, Sidonie (Lea Seydoux), and agonizing over her relationship with her closest favorite, the detested Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). At least, that’s how it’s presented in Farewell My Queen, a realistic slice of royal life from the French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot.

The ineffectual king is seen only in glimpses (as is the starving populace of Paris) because the film is centered on the hothouse chambers of the queen and her retinue. Her every whim treated as royal decree, the queen flits from denial, poring over a design for an embroidered dress, to despair over her inevitable loss of the dutchess’ companionship. The pivotal three days that sealed the fate of the royal family is seen through the eyes of Sidonie, a mysterious servant who works in the library. Something of a newshound, Sidonie cultivates the friendship of the court archivist, a kindly and wise old man who falls apart as the nobles suppress their panic with gossip.

Suddenly elevated to the queen’s reader, Sidonie is able to indulge her adoration of the beautiful monarch, and witness firsthand some of the events that the other servants and members of the nobility can only conjecture about. Jacquot’s tight focus on these women is intermittently successful: As the queen confides in, or orders about, her servants in fits of silliness or resolution, the film achieves a tense intimacy, as do the long tracking shots of the nobles wandering aimlessly in their nightgowns down the formerly hallowed halls of power, seemingly lost without their prescribed rituals of deference to title and irrationally formal etiquette.

Other times, however, the pace is slow (overlong close-ups of the great beauties in the cast) and awkward, as when filming the relationships between servants (especially Sidonie and her embroiderer friend) and between servants and their masters, which appears off-kilter even under the circumstances of uncertainty and dread. The stripping of the king’s divine rights is viewed only from a momentary distance, and though the concentration on the queen’s chosen few—including the noblewomen who pounce on the opportunity to turn her ill fortune into personal gain—gives the proceedings a queasy suspense, these boudoir intrigues seem like mere obstructions to the greater drama going on behind other closed doors. It’s up to the acting of the leads to make this bitter confection compelling, and mostly, they’re up to it (especially Kruger). And when they’re not, the sumptuous settings and costumes enthrall the audience, giving silent indication as to why the aristocracy was too entranced to realize their own doom.