Farewell, My Queen

B Historical drama

  • Written by Benoît Jacquot & Gilles Taurand, from the novel by Chantal Thomas
  • Directed by Benoît Jacquot    

What was it like in Versailles in the final days of the French monarchy? Was the court panicked? In denial? Did anyone realize that they would soon lose their heads?

Benoît Jacquot creates…or imagines…an answer to these questions in this small yet visually impressive drama. Just don’t expect a sweeping epic; Farewell, My Queen runs only 99 minutes, and takes place almost entirely within the palace grounds over a period of just a few days.

But the middle of July, 1789, where pretty exciting days in France. Early in the film, news from Paris reaches the court: The people have taken the Bastille. That’s unthinkable! When the film ends, everyone is still reeling from the shock, and debating the wisdom of fleeing.

It would be easy for these people to remain in denial. Jacquot creates Versailles as a world onto itself, a beautiful palace in which the realities of normal people seldom intrude. We’re never given a true sense of its size, but the gardens contain a placid lake complete with gondolier.

There must be political intrigue going on here, but the film doesn’t bother with that, much. Most of the gossip concerns sex, mostly on the order of who’s sleeping with who.

We see this world through the eyes of a young, well-educated servant, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux). Her primary job is to read to the queen, and the two of them have developed a strangely close but not-too-close relationship. Diane Kruger plays Marie Antoinette as an outwardly nice woman, so at ease with her position that she can joke with and confide in Sidonie, and even massage the servant’s arm, without ever forgetting that she is infinitely superior. Sidonie doesn’t forget it either; when she leaves the queen’s quarters, she walks backwards.

But Sidonie makes for a bland lead character. We know little about her, and I didn’t find her interesting enough to really care about. Farewell, My Queen takes us back to a fascinating time and place, but the main character, who’s in almost every scene, is a void.

Luckily, Versailles in July of 1789 is interesting enough on its own. People start by whispering rumors, and are soon removing their jewels from their settings and planning their escapes.  Someone brings in a pamphlet naming people who are to be beheaded. The queen is at the top of the list.

Even before political waves disrupt this calm seas of aristocracy, Jacquot shows us a Versailles where beauty–and sanitation–are barely skin deep. The first sounds we hear are mosquitos. Characters itch from the bites. Dead rats turn up at the wrong times. (Is there ever a right one?)

This world onto itself, utterly dependent on a bigger world that it thinks it controls, can’t last forever. In this film, we get to see the dawning of this realization.

Despite its faults, Farewell, My Queen ends too soon. It whetted my appetite, but it didn’t satisfy it.

I saw Farewell, My Queen at a press screening prior to it opening the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival.