Farewell, My Queen (Cohen Media Group, R)

film farewell-queen_75Watching Farewell, My Queen is like being a spy in the house of history—in this case, the house is Versailles and the date is July 14, 1789.


film farewell-queen_500

Watching Farewell, My Queen is like being a spy in the house of history—in this case, the house is Versailles and the date is July 14, 1789. Should your memory of European history be a bit fuzzy, that’s the day the Bastille fell, and in Farewell, My Queen, director Benoît Jacquot provides is a backstage view of an era rapidly coming to an end.

Although the palace and trappings are beautiful (the film was shot in the real Versailles, which fact alone is reason enough to see this film if you’re a Francophile), Jacquot does not whitewash the realities of life at court, particularly for the servant class. While many of the scenes are framed and lit as beautifully as paintings, rats make their appearance more than once, as do insect bites and soiled clothing, and the court is a squabbling mess both upstairs and downstairs.

Information about the state of affairs outside the palace arrives in dribs and drabs, and Jacquot allows us to observe the reactions of the various players without imposing too much of his own judgment on the proceedings. Intellectually, it would be easy to despise Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) for her foolishness—she seems more concerned about a particular piece of embroidery than she does about the threat to her life—but within the context of the movie, her choices, and her character, make sense. Similarly, it you could readily condemn the scheming behavior of the servants, but from their point of view, they’re just making the best of a bad situation.

The central character in Farewell, My Queen is not Marie Antoinette, but the fictional character Sidonie (Lea Seydoux), a young servant whose primary job is to read to the queen. Sidonie admires Marie (in fact, she seems a bit infatuated with her), but she’s also a smart girl with an eye out for the main chance. Had the French Revolution not happened, being close to the queen could have set Sidonie up for a very comfortable life.

Female friendships, and perhaps more than friendships, are a central theme in this film. The queen has special favorite, Gabrielle (Virginie Ledoyen), whom she seems to love far more than her husband, and there is a whole corps of female servants with their own set of alliances, which create a sort of counterpoint to their official positions in the pecking order.

If, like me, you’re tired of American films in which a disproportionate share of the action (or all of it) is given to male characters, Farewell, My Queen offers a real and welcome contrast in that department. In fact, I’m not sure if it would pass a reverse Bechdel test—there are male characters with names (including Xavier Beauvois as Louis XVI, Jacob Nicolas Moreau as the king’s archivist, and Vladimir Consigny as a rather cheeky gondolier), but if any of them have conversations of any importance with each other, it escapes my memory.

Farewell, My Queen remains firmly within the European art-house tradition of films such as Mozart’s Sister and The Princess of Montpensier: The period detail is exquisite, and the motivations and emotions of the characters need no translation for the modern viewer. It also remains somewhat distanced from the historical events taking placing in the background. The point is not that the Bastille fell, but how the characters in the film react to that event. Farewell, My Queen doesn’t have a lot in terms of easy payoffs, but if you’re willing to enter its world, you will find it more than worth your while. | Sarah Boslaugh

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