Foppish finery. Palace intrigue. Creamy, swelling bosoms. Yep, it’s another film about life and love among the decadent elite in 18th-century France. Those elements may make you think of sensual costume dramas like Dangerous Liaisons; they make me think of Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I. In the segment about the French Revolution, Brooks skewers those movie clichés forcefully—as forcefully as Cloris Leachman, playing Mme. DeFarge, uses a knitting needle to skewer her own creamy, swelling bosom. It pops like a balloon.
I found myself wishing for a Brooksian laugh or two as I watched Farewell, My Queen, French director Benoît Jacquot’s deadly serious film about the last days at Versailles. But Jacquot relentlessly serves up ominous portents, starting with the opening title: “July 14, 1789.” Hoo boy.
Based on Chantal Thomas’ popular 2002 novel, Farewell, My Queen has an inventive take on this history. We see the action through the eyes of a courtier named Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), whose regular task has been to read books to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie is fiercely devoted to Marie—partly in the way that a subject is loyal to a monarch, but Sidonie also is smitten by the queen, and I can see why. As played by Kruger, Marie is an intoxicating beauty—bright, talkative, casually flirtatious. It’s deliciously agonizing to watch Sidonie pine for Marie in their first scene together, especially as Marie delicately rubs Sidonie’s mosquito-bitten arm with rosewood water.
Over the course of a few days, Sidonie and Marie’s interactions grow more intense as, around them, chaos sets in at Versailles. Jacquot really captures a sense of panic. Word of the Bastille’s storming arrives, first in the form of vague rumors. Someone turns up with a revolutionary pamphlet listing heads that need to be cut off, including Marie’s. Courtesans loot and flee. Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois) gives speeches, ineffectually. Sidonie watches all of this closely. She also watches Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), the noblewoman who is Marie’s close friend and, it seems, her lover.
This is juicy material, but there’s a disappointing flatness, and part of it has to do with the character at the center. Playing Sidonie, Seydoux doesn’t hit many actorly notes. Sidonie loves the queen, she’s afraid about the unrest, and that’s about it. I suspect the blame doesn’t lie with Seydoux, who had some nice moments in the small role of a street vendor in Midnight in Paris. The problem seems structural. We’re watching big events unfold from the perspective of a character who is, by definition, peripheral, but who is in just about every scene. We’re watching her watch, which is about as interesting as it sounds.
Another difficulty is that the film feels condensed from source material, but not condensed enough. Numerous characters flicker in and out of scenes, and I can’t keep them straight, much less remember who’s important and who’s not. One plot thread relates to a feisty gondolier named Paolo (Vladimir Consigny). He and Sidonie have a prickly meet-cute on a boat, and later the two kiss, and later still he is, for some reason, rushed out by gendarmes—I think. It happens quickly and leaves me perplexed.
I also can’t keep the interiors straight. At climactic moments, Sidonie rushes from place to place, and it’s not always clear where she is and why she’s there. That’s unsettling. I should say, though, that the interiors, some of them shot at Versailles, are sumptuous and lovely. So, too, are the costumes. There’s a scene in which Marie’s lavish wig is removed, and in a way it’s the film’s most dramatic moment.
I’m most disappointed by the film’s treatment of Marie and Gabrielle’s romance, or whatever it is. This is the story’s most tantalizing aspect, and Jacquot could have developed it more forcefully. Marie and Gabrielle are seen to be close, but between them there isn’t much more than meaningful looks and a deeply felt kiss, which could still just be friendly.
I gather that the matter of Marie’s same-sex dalliances is, historically speaking, controversial, and maybe Jacquot was just playing it safe. But as a result, this crucial element feels unformed. From what we see, Marie and Gabrielle’s relationship is so chaste it wouldn’t even raise eyebrows at Chick-fil-A.