Benoît Jacquot’s “Farewell My Queen” takes us backstage at Versailles during the fateful three days before the General Assembly takes Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette prisoner. (July 14th-July 16 1789.)
Shot with the handheld or steadicam approach of a documentary, Benoit’s brisk film puts us in the shoes of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux-“Mysteries Of Lisbon”, “Midnight In Paris’), an orphan who’s become Marie Antoinette’s favored reader, or as she puts it “the servant of the Queen’s books.”
Caught up as bystanders we taste the uncertainty, the chaos of social upheaval. Some of the characters around us kick into survival mode, others sink into passivity. Being on the fringes of big events is liberating. I was reminded of Andrzej Wajda’s “Danton”, which handles the French Revolution with a fly on the wall immediacy, or the pleasurable long sequence In Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” as a few people arriving at The Winter Palace becomes crowds of partygoers wandering with the camera, through a vast ball.
We travel the candle lit corridors where courtiers live in filthy rat-holes just to catch a bi-weekly sight of the King in the famed Hall Of Mirrors. One such courtier, the aged Marquis de Vaucouleurs (Jacques Herlin-“Gods and Men”) left his grand chateaux behind, spending 6 years in cramped quarters for the honor of living near the king. The servants in the vast city that was Versailles live higher up in smaller rooms. Favored Sidonie’s plain room has one decorative object, a magnificent gilded golden clock loaned to her by the impetuous and sensual Queen.
Sidonie is love struck, besotted by her Queen. Diane Kruger (“Lily, Sometimes”, ‘Mr.Nobody”) is superb as the canny, willful Marie Antoinette. In the space of three days, we watch her imperial cosseted side, her carnal escapist side, and ultimately her regal attempt to do her duty, standing by her King and country.
Marie Antoinette is obsessed with fashion. She reads fashion magazines, keeps a sample and idea book and designs her clothes. It’s her escape from the rigors of her position. The King also seeks diversions to help him forget the weight of the power he was raised to wield. “Power? Why would anyone want power?” the befuddled Louis asks his wife.
As the revolution comes closer to Versaille, the Queen retreats into her cocoon of privilege. Contemplating escaping the revolution she orders her ladies in waiting to pack her tea pot, coffee and chocolate maker, her son’s sailor suit and daughter’s straw boater. “She burns in the sun.”
She’s madly in love with favorite Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen-‘”Shall We Kiss?”, “Army of Crime”) an impoverished aristocrat raised by the Queen’s favor to Governess of the Children of France. (Though not explained in the film, Marie Antoinette paid the Polignac’s debts, raised them to Duke and Duchess and awarded them a 14 room suite at Versailles, all to keep the younger beauty close. Considered an arriviste by the court, the Duchess influenced the Queen and King to dismiss popular liberal minister Necker, hastening their downfall.)
Gabrielle treats the Queen as an equal. Liberated by Gabrielle’s blase treatment Marie Antoinette can’t do without her.
The first day, Sidonie wakes from a deep sleep, natters with her upstairs servant neighbor, Louison (Lolita Chammah-“The Intruder”, “Copacabana” ) and rushes to the Queen in her private digs at the Petite Trianon.
Mme Campan (Noémie Lvovsky), the queens first lady-in waiting, frets, ceaselessly worried about Sidonie”s appearance and performance.
Whilst lounging on the Queen’s bed reading to her, Sidonie unconsciously scratches her mosquito bitten arms. (Versailles was built on a swamp as the frogs on the soundtrack attest). The Queen sends for oil of roses and, to Mme Campan’s dismay smooths it on Sidonie’s plumb young arm. She’s a flirt and a sensualist and Sidonie is putty in her hands.
While reading a fashion magazine, The Queen decides she must have an embroidered Dahlia sample and a powerful Lady In Waiting cajoles Sidonie into secretly embroidering the sample. Sidonie prizes her position as Reader to the Queen. The last thing she wants is to be taken for a higher paid embroideuse.
While lazing on the lagoon (Petit Venise), courted by the fake Italian gondolier Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), Sidonie catches sight of the Queen’s maligned favorite Duchess de Polignac, rumored to be Paolo’s lover.
As the gossip about the Queen and her favorite swirl around the Palace, it seems that only Sidonie and Mme Campan are loyal to the Queen.
There’s a randy contra danse below stairs, which includes the sybaritic L’abbé Hérissé (Hervé Pierre Sociétaire de la Comédie Française)
Abbé Cornu de la Balivière (Aladin Reibel). The servants know more about the action in Paris than the sheltered nobles, and the rumor-driven anxiety adds a forced gayety to the romp.
By the next morning, rumors of the KIng being woken in the middle of the night fill the corridors. Sidonie, with her access to the Queen, is begged for facts from the ambitious courtiers. A list of 286 heads to be cut off circulates.
In fact the Bastille was taken, the Director was beheaded. Swiss Guards were killed and the Revolution has truly begun. Canny Marie Antoinette begins packing for her families escape to the fortress town of Metz, from which she is planning a counter attack. While the thieving Mme de Rochereuil (Dominique Reymond “Summer Hours”) packs (separating items for her own personal use) the Queen, Mme Campan and Sidonie beginn ripping apart her jewels to pack. But first Sidonie is sent on two secret missions, one to find a map of the shortest route from Versaille to Metz, and of even greater importance to the besotted Queen, to bring Gabrielle to her.
Sidonie scurries to the Archive were wizened survivor, the Kings historian M. Moreau (Michel Robin-“On Guard “, “La gamine”), charmed by her devotion to the queen warns her, “So young and already so blind.” Robin is a marvel in the part, an ironic presence. Indeed Moreau and Mme Campan are the closest things to parents orphaned Sidonie has.
Next she forces her way into Gabrielle’s rooms. In a scene reminiscent of a classical nude portrait, curious Sidonie pulls down the covers of the doped beauty to inspect her rival. Returning to the Queen, failed at her mission she’s dismissed, but sleeps well knowing Marie Antoinette will escape. As she sleeps, courtiers, nobles and clergy flee Versailles, many carrying booty.
Alas, on the morning of the 15th, the Queen remains, a prisoner of her husband’s decision to cooperate with the transitional government.
Dressed as a citizen, the King agrees to reinstate Necker and meets with the new Mayor of Paris.
When Gabrielle finally arrives, Marie-Antointte orders her favorite to flee France, hoping the proud beauty will refuse. But opportunistic Gabrielle jumps at the chance to save her neck. Grief stricken, the Queen is inconsolable, focused on her heartbreak rather than her uncertain future.
Sidonie’s summoned. Marie Antoinette orders her to strip (in another painterly nude scene) The Queen watches her undress; her sensual appraisal of another of her favorites closes the circle on the film’s sub textual love triangle.
Dressed as Gabrielle, the Queen asks her to act as bait to help Gabrielle and her husband cross the border. Proud of her sacrifice, the newly minted aristocrat saunters out of the palace, unrecognized by her former friends. ( A similar trick is used in Barry Lyndon).Driving away from all she knows and loves, Sidonie waves at passing peasants. One makes a slice your throat gesture and the terrified couple forces her to lie down. Cooley impersonating her rival, Sidonie negotiates their passage to safety. “I am an orphan, I am the Queen’s reader, I serve the Queen. Soon I will be far from Versailles. Soon I will be nobody.”
Romain Winding’s remarkable photography takes the candle lit approach made famous by John Alcott (Kubrick’s DP) on “Barry Lyndon.” Shot in Versailes, Le Petite Trianon (exteriors) Maison Lafitte and the Chateau de Cantille, the film is a visual delight. Katia Wyszkop’s production design and costumes by Christian Gasc (“The Widow of Saint, “Ridicule”) and Valérie Ranchoux increase define the upstairs downstairs disparity contrasting satins and brocades and golden screenswith the stone worked walls and the barren servant’s rooms. Original music by Bruno Coulais (“Coraline”, “The Secret of Kells”, “Deep in the Woods”) is another plus.