Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Farewell, My Queen: What the Reader Saw at the Revolution

Versailles was a place of scandal and indulgence.  For a while, it was all quite amusing to the royal court assembled there, but by July 1789, it had lost its novelty.  Revolution is in the air, but a loyal reader still faithfully serves her queen in Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Among the royal hangers-on, it is widely known Marie-Antoinette has developed an unhealthy co-dependency on her lady-in-waiting, the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac.  At first, that was all very well for the Polignacs, but times are changing.  A list calling for the decapitation of 286 heads is circulating and the queen’s is right at the top.  Suddenly, the Duchess is indisposed as Marie-Antoinette faces the long dark night of her soul, such as it might be.  However, her trusted reader Sidonie Laborde remains eager to please.

As an ambiguously privileged servant, Laborde presents an intriguing perspective on the French Revolution.  Moving relatively freely both “upstairs” and “downstairs,” she is familiar with the palace’s two contrasting worlds.  Though her sympathies lie with her mistress, she is increasingly aware revolutionary sentiment has infected the servants’ quarters.

Largely filmed on location at Versailles (including the Petit Trianon), Farewell creates a vivid sense of the place, including the less than stately back passages and service corridors.  Yet, rather than reduce the iconic palace’s stature, Jacquot creates a claustrophobic hothouse vibe.

Versailles might be the star of Farewell, but the regal Diane Krüger certainly seems at home there.  It would be easy to present Marie-Antoinette as the customary self-absorbed hedonist, but Krüger’s portrayal is deeper than that, conveying her considerable neediness and even hinting at a measure of self-awareness here and there.  Likewise, Léa Seydoux gives a sensitive, finely wrought performance as the tragically dedicated Laborde.  However, as Polignac (first introduced to the audience zonked out on opium seeds), Virignie Ledoyen hardly has sufficient screen time to explain the queen’s persistent attachment.

Farewell is a richly detailed period piece.  Set designer Katia Wyszkop’s work is truly Oscar worthy, while Romain Winding’s cinematography clearly reflects the candlelight illumination of the pre-Edison era, without sacrificing clarity.  Recommended for those who enjoy the trappings of a good costume production as much as the on-screen drama, Farewell, My Queen opens this Friday (7/13) in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.