Farewell My Queen ***1/2
Benoît Jacquot’s Farwell My Queen takes an oblique look at the first days of the French Revolution – through the eyes of Marie Antoinette’s reader, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux). It’s kind of the Rosencrantz and Gulidenstern Are Dead approach to history, observing it from the perspective of a “minor character”, and it works. Sequestered in Versailles, at the beck and call of the Queen (an excellent Diane Kruger), Sidonie learns of the unrest in Paris and the possibility of the people marching on the Palace as everyone does – through whispered gossip. The evocation of the “backstage” world of the Palace is excellent and rings true, full of terrific attention to detail, not only in production design but in the manners and customs of the world of the court. As the King and Queen debate their options – fleeing, staying, attempting to appeal to the people by going to Paris – Marie Antoinette takes Sidonie into her confidence with her great love for La Duchesse Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).
Relentless and full of foreboding portent, it’s a fascinating glimpse of a moment in history from, essentially, a safe bystander. In this suddenly changing world, to be poor and servile suddenly means being powerful, because you’re not on the kill list – a pamphlet listing 184 noblemen and women whose heads need to be chopped off for France to advance. Marie Antoinette was the very first name on that list, and it included Gabrielle and many others at Versailles. Watching the panic spread through the halls and chambers of the vast palace is evocative and exciting, and Jacquot gives us surprising moments of what people in panic do – including drinking too much and having rushed and sudden sex with people you might normally not.
Throughout it all, Seydoux grounds the film – as the events are seen only through her eyes, she’s in every scene of the film. She’s terrific, and, given that she looks like a teenage Marion Cotillard, I predict she’s destined for very big things.