"Farewell, My Queen" offers an intoxicating opportunity to eavesdrop on history, to be a fly on the wall at the great palace at Versailles as an old order starts its slow-motion collapse into the dustbin of history.
As directed byFrance'sveteran Benoit Jacquot, "Farewell, My Queen" has a potent emotional component as well, involving the tangled emotional lives of three beautiful women: Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), the queen in question; Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), the monarch's worshipful young servant; and Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), the queen's special favorite.
Allowed the unusual privilege of actually shooting at Versailles, Jacquot and his director of photography, Romain Winding, bring a sense of intimacy and reality to sequences of uneasy courtiers hurrying down labyrinthine, candlelit corridors.
Young Sidonie, plucked from obscurity to be a lady-in-waiting to the queen, cares about none of this. Her specific job is as the queen's reader, selecting a book from the royal library and reciting it aloud to her mistress, and she very much cherishes this special closeness to Marie Antoinette.
It is through Sidonie's eyes that we experience what happens in Versailles, and Seydoux is an excellent choice for the role. A remarkably versatile young actress, she has the kind of presence that involves us in whatever is going on.
The same is true for Kruger in the more multifaceted role of Marie Antoinette. A non-native speaker of French (like her character), the German-born Kruger portrays a quixotic, quicksilver ruler, a creature of ever-changing whims who wants to be obeyed absolutely even as she sometimes tries to forget she's the queen.
"Farewell, My Queen" begins on July 14, 1789, soon to be a pivotal day in French history but one that starts like any other for the inhabitants of this elaborate estate psychologically far removed from Paris. When we first see Marie Antoinette, she is lounging around in her nightgown, acting for all the world like a gal pal of Sidonie's who's hanging out after a sleepover. There's a trace of flirtatiousness to her behavior, which is part of the reason Sidonie is passionately devoted to her.
More aware of what is happening in the outside world is Sidonie's friend and mentor, the king's archivist Jacob Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), who tells her of food riots in Paris and insists that "at my age, I look the truth straight on."
The next morning, the 15th, the entire court is in an uproar over the news that the king was awakened at 2 a.m. Was he ill, and if not, what happened that was significant enough to wake him? As panic sweeps the palace, we can see how the entire establishment lives and dies by every random movement of their rulers. The news, of course, was the storming of the Bastille, and it is fascinating to see the split reaction that the event engenders, as people simultaneously panic and go on as if nothing had changed.
Sidonie gets caught up against her will in the queen's emotional and possibly erotic entanglement with Gabrielle de Polignac (an effective Ledoyen.)
This entanglement gets increasingly problematic as the political situation worsens. As servants grumble and the queen complains, "They hide everything from me, it's insupportable," we listen in, enraptured. History tells us how this story ends, but history is rarely as passionate as this.
'Farewell, My Queen' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for brief graphic nudity and language)
Running time: 1:37