On the morning of July 14, 1789, the Queen's reader, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux, "Inglourious Basterds," "Sister") is late. She then scandalizes Marie Antoinette's (Diane Kruger, "Inglourious Basterds") first lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan (Noémie Lvovsky, "House of Pleasures"), when the Queen sends for rosewood water after seeing the girl scratching at mosquito bites. Three days later all this will be but trivia as the Versailles Court is turned upside down and the Queen asks Sidonie to make the ultimate sacrifice in "Farewell, My Queen."
Adapting Chantal Thomas's novel with Gilles Taurand ("La Belle Personne"), director Benoît Jacquot ("A Single Girl," "Sade") jumps over a flat period ("Adolphe," "The Untouchable") to bring us a very intriguing Sapphic love triangle set against a unique environment - Versailles after the storming of the Bastille seen from the point of view of a servant. Jacquot masterfully gets across the politics, jealousies and jockeying of court life from the highest to the lowest levels and his cinematographer, Romain Winding, has achieved the beautiful look of natural lighting in lush interiors and shadowy corridors with the director's first foray into digital filmmaking.
The film is split into three days. During the first, we largely learn about Sidonie's all-consuming love for her Queen and her jealousy regarding the Queen's favorite, La duchesse Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen, "A Single Girl"). Their relationship has tongues wagging and the Queen appears powerless in the hands of the opportunistic Polignac just as Sidonie is powerless to the whims and and favors of the fickle, temperamental Queen. At Sidonie's level, knowledge is power and it is stolen and traded and difficult to acquire. She finds out some from other servants like Honorine (Julie-Marie Parmentier, "Around a Small Mountain") and the flirty Louison (Lolita Chammah, daughter of Isabelle Huppert), but she is also blessed with the confidence of court archivist Jacob-Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin, "Amélie"). But there are rats in Versailles, both literally and figuratively.
When the second day begins, that lust for news goes into overdrive when Sidonie's awoken with news that the King (Xavier Beauvois, "Of Gods and Men") was awoken in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone scurries about dark corridors looking for gossip. The previous day's utterance about not enough bread in Paris has evolved into the alarming news that the Bastille has been stormed. Then the direst threat - a list of 286 whose heads are demanded to begin reform - is produced into the court and one almost gets the atmosphere of Hitler's bunker. The Queen tops the list. Polignac isn't too far behind. As Sidonie makes her way to the Queen's chamber, she runs against a tide of large objects being carried out of the Palace. Lady-in-waiting Madame de Rochereuil (Dominique Reymond) appraises items of the Queen's which go wayward as she packs them. But for Sidonie things go especially poorly when she only reacts to one of the Queen's requests, having perceived passion as a higher priority than practicality.
While working on a large scale with a monumental time in history, Jacquot succeeds most in how his details enrich the experience of his film. The politics involved in embroidering a dahlia sample for the Queen are revelatory in how small things build court position and favor. The fate of an old marquis and his abandonment of the court is made more troubling when we learn about the deplorable living conditions he's endured for the privilege of seeing the King in the Hall of Mirrors maybe 'once or twice a week.' The actresses who play those around the Queen convey much with silent looks and the ensemble is excellent. Seydoux is fine as the young girl who believes she deserves the Queen's favor, but Kruger is a revelation as Antoinette, making the woman capable of kindness but also ignorant of the huge implications of her smallest peeves.
The production, much of which was shot on location at Versailles, is beautiful. In one amazing scene, the Louis XVI pays a visit to his Queen and everything is gold - the room, the furniture, the clothes, the people. Original music by Bruno Coulais ("The Chorus," "Coraline") is far from the obvious, his use of swirling violins and somber piano ominous from the get go.
The film is presented in widescreen and offers the usual audio/subtitle setups, scene selection and theatrical trailer. There are two additional special features. In one, New York Film Festival director Kent Jones discusses the film - mostly in French - with a playful Jacquot who notes that his change of the novel's 50 year-old protagonist to a 20 year-old is the 'miracle of directing.' He also highlights the similarities between this film and "A Single Girl," observing that Seydoux is taking the place now of Ledoyen. He has some gossipy and amusing things to say about both. He also comes down strongly in favor of digital. The other feature is a series of interviews held on location during the making of the film. Jacquot doesn't add much we haven't already heard, but Ledoyen shows her intelligence while Seydoux shows her inexperience, emphasized by the fact that the younger actress is interviewed with Noémie Lvovsky by her side like a chaperone. Xavier Beauvois is amusing, staying in character, but he ruins the effect by dropping his cane. Unfortunately, we do not hear from Kruger, the movie's mysterious heart.
The last days of the reign of King Louis XVI began with the storming of the Bastille in the revolt by the people against their monarch and ended with Louis losing his head. Filmmaker Benoit Jacquot looks at these final days through the eyes of the queen’s reader, Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), as she bids “Farewell, My Queen.”
This is a lavishly produced period drama and one of the very few films that have been allowed to shoot in the hallowed halls and grounds of Versailles. This location, the beautifully detailed costume and makeup, a terrific cast and original look at the end of the French monarchy make “Farewell, My Queen” a fascinating historical drama. The central character, Sidonie, is a lowly court servant devoted to her queen and whose only desire is to be close to her. We see the end of the King and Queen’s reign to violent revolt through Sidonie’s perspective and Lea Seydoux centers the movie well.
The film is set amidst the turmoil of the time when the people of France no longer wanted just bread and revolted against the king to take power and country. Despite the chaos consuming the royal court, the queen, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) goes on with her pampered life, including Sidonie reading to her as the mob screams at the palace gates. Benoit does a fine job showing the final days of the kingdom and the beginning of the bloodbath that would kill thousands at the hand of the revolution.
The film shows both sides of the social spectrum within the court akin to “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” but with bloodthirsty ramble at the door. Acting is first-rate at all levels, the attention to period detail is obvious and Jacquot does not waste time, keeping things moving interestingly and well.
The Blu-ray release (no DVD included in the package) has some interesting, but not unique, extras that include the theatrical trailer, an extensive interview by New York Film Festival director Kent Jones with Benoit Jacquot and a series of film-location interviews with the director and his actors. I give “Farewell, My Queen” and the Blu-ray release a B+.
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