Why do we continue to be fascinated by the doomed and decadent French queen, Marie Antoinette? Cinema and literature keep finding fresh angles to explore and exploit her ongoing charisma, and Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen provides all the pleasures – and more – that we expect from this subject. There are extravagantly beautiful costumes, stunning cinematography and visions of lavish excess and emotional intrigue. Most importantly, the film offers insights into the (possible) personality and motivations of Marie, that frivolous and pitiable creature whose pretty neck will always be on the edge of the guillotine when we watch her from our historical vantage point.
Watching the queen is also the chief pleasure and obsession of the film's central character, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young girl employed in the palace library and called upon regularly to read aloud to the queen. Sidonie's devotion is wonderfully portrayed by Seydoux, whose full-lipped, unmade-up beauty and candid intensity recall a very young Scarlett Johansson (especially in Girl With a Pearl Earring). Rushing along corridors, falling over her skirts in her desperation to please her majesty, Sidonie lives and breathes for the moments she spends in the queen's presence. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) lives and breathes to see and touch her own best friend (and perhaps lover), the pragmatic and cat-eyed Mme. de Polinac (Virgine Ledoyen).
The Sapphic love-triangle element of this plot is never overplayed, though both Sidonie and Marie are shown experiencing all the breathless desperation and anguish of women in love with someone who doesn't return, or deserve, their level of ardour – and the final betrayals are breathtaking. Kruger is brilliant at portraying the young queen's nervy absorption in her own romantic dramas, even as the palace walls are crawling with political turmoil and rumours of beheadings.
Filmed on location at the Palace of Versaille (with cinematography by Romain Winding), and set over the course of a few days leading up to the fall, Farewell My Queen is particularly good at suggesting how separate and removed Versaille remains – a complex social world unto itself, far from the concerns of the French people, right up until the moment when the gates collapse.
A worthy addition to the collection of films about Marie Antoinette, this one succeeds as the ultimate costume drama – one where the clothes are both sublimely pleasurable to look at and also irreducibly meaningful to the story's progression. The sumptuous costume design is by Valérie Ranchoux & Christian Gasc, with every element describing the characters' journey and psychology, from the single dress owned and adapted by the servant Sidonie, to the fine white linen nightdresses donned by the queen as she lolls about in bed. A special mention has to go to that poisonous green gown (it's almost chartreuse, but not quite) worn in the movie's final scenes and featured in the promotional poster. It's well worth seeing the film to find out exactly why it matters.
(Farewell My Queen - released in Australian cinemas by Transmission on Thursday 6 June 2013)