Diane Kruger stars as Marie Antoinette in Benoit Jacquot's historical… (Carole Bethuel, Cohen Media…)
"Farewell, My Queen" offers an intoxicating opportunity to eavesdrop on history, to be a fly on the wall at the great palace at Versailles as an old order starts its slow-motion collapse into the dustbin of history.
As directed by France'sveteran Benoît Jacquot, "Farewell, My Queen" has a potent emotional component as well, involving the tangled emotional lives of three beautiful women: Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), the queen in question; Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), the monarch's worshipful young servant; and Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), the queen's special favorite.
Matching the strength of these actresses and their personal drama is the film's masterful sense of time and place — the way it makes us feel that this was how it was during four pivotal days in July 1789 as the wheels came off the French monarchy.
Allowed the unusual privilege of actually shooting at Versailles, Jacquot and his director of photography, Romain Winding, bring a sense of intimacy and reality to sequences of uneasy courtiers hurrying down labyrinthine, candlelit corridors. They beautifully convey the chaos and confusion that unfolded as unforeseen, unprecedented events undermined the structure of the monarchy.
The director and Gilles Taurand adapted Chantal Thomas' 2002 novel for the screen, and their Versailles was hardly tranquil even before the tide of history started to turn. The royal court is portrayed as a hotbed of self-interested pettiness and jealous rivalries, not to mention a spot where mosquito bites were fierce and unavoidable and dead rats not hard to find.
Young Sidonie, plucked from obscurity to be a lady-in-waiting to the queen, cares about none of this. Her specific job is as the queen's reader, selecting a book from the royal library and reciting it aloud to her mistress, and she very much cherishes this special closeness to Marie Antoinette.
It is through Sidonie's eyes that we experience what happens in Versailles, and Seydoux is an excellent choice for the role. A remarkably versatile young actress (she was the shopkeeper who caught Luke Wilson's eye in"Midnight in Paris" as well as an assassin in the last "Mission: Impossible"), Seydoux has the kind of presence that involves us in whatever is going on.
The same is true for Kruger in the more multifaceted role of Marie Antoinette. A non-native speaker of French (like her character), the German-born Kruger portrays a quixotic, quicksilver ruler, a creature of ever-changing whims who wants to be obeyed absolutely even as she sometimes tries to forget she's the queen.
"Farewell, My Queen" begins on July 14, 1789, soon to be a pivotal day in French history but one that starts like any other for the inhabitants of this elaborate estate psychologically far removed from Paris. Though Sidonie has been given a clock to help her keep track of time — an object of awe to her friends — she is late getting to her early morning obligation to read to the queen.
When we first see Marie Antoinette, she is lounging around in her nightgown, acting for all the world like a gal pal of Sidonie's who's hanging out after a sleepover. There's a trace of flirtatiousness to her behavior, which is part of the reason Sidonie is passionately devoted to her and cannot imagine life outside Versailles.
More aware of what is happening in the outside world is Sidonie's friend and mentor, the king's archivist Jacob Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), who tells her of food riots in Paris and insists that "at my age, I look the truth straight on."
The next morning, the 15th, the entire court is in an uproar over the news that the king was awakened at 2 a.m. Was he ill, and if not, what happened that was significant enough to wake him? As panic sweeps the palace, we can see how the entire establishment lives and dies by every random movement of the absolute rulers who control their destinies.
The news, of course, was the storming of the Bastille, and it is fascinating to see the split reaction that the event engenders, as people simultaneously panic and go on as if nothing had changed. Sidonie, for example, is obsessed with embroidering an elaborate dahlia that the fashion-forward queen has requested.
Sidonie also gets caught up against her will in the queen's emotional and possibly erotic entanglement with Gabrielle de Polignac (an effective Ledoyen, who starred in Jacquot's 1995 breakthrough film, "A Single Girl.")
This entanglement gets increasingly problematic as the political situation worsens. As servants grumble and the queen complains, "They hide everything from me, it's insupportable," we listen in, enraptured. History tells us how this story ends, but history is rarely as passionate as this.
'Farewell, My Queen'
MPAA rating: R, for brief graphic nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles