Film Review – Farewell, My Queen
What happens to the common people when great events unfold? When royalty engage in their machinations, what effect does that have on those that serve them? How are loyal servants rewarded for their years of unyielding service? Often in historical epics, these are questions that are not addressed. History seems to think only those in the upper classes are worth our time and focus. But how events affect the masses that prop leaders up is an interesting and often tragic subject. The new French film Farewell, My Queen is a tale of one of these servants.
Lea Seydoux (who recently played the female villain in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) stars as Sidonie Laborde. It is the summer of 1792 and she is the official reader for the Queen, Marie Antoinette (portrayed with great range by Diane Kruger of Inglourious Basterds fame). While the populace is readying revolt in Paris, Marie carries on in her home in Versailles engaged in frivolity of picking out new dress materials and reading poetry. Sidonie is loyal to her Queen, and it is obvious that her service comes from genuine love instead of simple obligation. She is a true believer in this ruler. But Antoinette’s staff all walks on eggshells around her. They know that her mood can change at any time. One wrong word or gesture can end up causing them a world of misery. They truly are subject to the Queen’s whims. Sidonie is less afraid than those around her. She feels that if she makes herself noticed, she will end up being appreciated. Recently she had been loaned an elegant clock as a reward for service. Being given a bauble like that made her feel needed and appreciated.
Unfortunately, if you know anything about history, the French royalty at that time was not known for its generosity to its people. The Queen was prone to radical mood shifts. Half the time she can’t remember Sidonie’s name, because her reader means so little to her. While it was rumored in historical texts, it is overtly implied here that she had many a lover, including Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), who was another member of the royalty. Through some brazenly public displays of affection, the Queen shows her love for this woman, who seems to have reciprocated the feelings mainly as a way to maintain her station in the court. While this relationship seems obvious to all of the servants, no one is bold enough to speak of it, for fear of any repercussions.
However, as the summer wears on and the French Revolution makes its way toward Versailles, the realities of their world start to demand attention. Some of the servants who were dutiful for decades end up on a list of potential beheadings by the revolters. Members of the court start abandoning their posts en masse. Looting of some of the royal belongings occurs. Despite all of that, Sidonie still tries to remain loyal to her beloved Queen. She has decided to stay for the duration. However, the ultimate cowardly sacrifice that Marie Antoinette asks of her is both sad and pathetic.
Based on a French novel, director Benoit Jacquot has filmed this story in stark close-ups. The usual approach to a historical epic of this kind is vast shots of royal palaces and massive scenes with armies of extras storming the palace gates, etc. But here, by keeping the story intimate and told through the eyes of a servant, he is able to show us the inner lives of the characters. The lighting is very naturalistic, recalling the same approach Stanley Kubrick used in Barry Lyndon, when he lit all of the interior scenes by candlelight. The production values here are sumptuous, but don’t overly romanticize the era. Most stories of Marie Antoinette’s court focus on the wanton excess. She is definitely shown as out of touch here as well, but it doesn’t jump over into some sort of Baz-Luhrmann-esqe bacchanalia. We know the Revolution is coming from the dispatches the servants receive. Over the top theatrics aren’t needed for this story.
The performances throughout the film are solid. Seydoux is both strong and sympathetic as a subject with ultimately misguided loyalties, and Kruger is particularly good as Antoinette, playing her both playfully and as coldly dismissive. This is a side of history we don’t often get to appreciate. Not everything happens on thrones or in massive halls. History happens to those whose names aren’t in history books as well. And Farewell, My Queen is a strong reminder of that.
Final Grade: B