Let’s get this out of the way right away. There is no lusty lady-in-waiting-on-lady-in-waiting action in Farewell, My Queen. If you’ve come for hot, powdered-wig bodice ripping on the eve of the French Revolution, this is not the film you’re looking for. Still, the chronicling of the fall of Versailles and its doomed Queen Marie Antoinette is a sumptuous affair filed with unspoken desire and naked intimacy.
The story is told through the eyes of one of the queen’s handmaidens, Sidonie Laborde (played by the resourceful Léa Seydoux). Young and worshipful, Sidonie is obsequious official reader for the queen (played by Diane Kruger). Director Benoît Jacquot’s tightly paced story opens the day before the storming of the Bastille and takes us through four final danger-fraught days in the monarchy.
But this isn’t a story about the excesses of King Louis XVI’s French court, or even the frivolities assigned to Marie Antoinette. This is a tale of about complex devotion and love, in its most obsessive forms, between three intertwined women: the queen, her reader and the queen’s favorite, the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (played by Virginie Ledoyen).
Sidonie sees all as our wallflower to history. The queen dotes on Gabrielle, lavishing her with gifts and attention – something not lost on the court of the commoners. Meanwhile, Sidonie idolizes the queen, forgiving her decadence and thrilling at the smallest touch. Thanks to Sidonie’s sympathies and Kruger’s portrayal, Antoinette is more than just an absurd caricature of extravagance and elitism. She seems, in her own way, quite sad. A woman overcome with her desire for someone, who remains unsure of her devotion back.
The walls start to close in on the royal court and lords and servants alike begin to abandon the palace. As chaos reigns around them, the queen confides in Sidonie one evening. She asks, with unexpected desperation, “Have you ever been attracted by a woman to the point you suffer in her absence?”
The object of her attraction, Ledoyen’s Gabrielle, has more of a symbolic presence in the film than a physical one. Icy and aloof as she is beautiful and radiant, her true intentions with the queen remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Is she using her? Does she love her?
Based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, the film manages to be taut and suspenseful despite obvious historical outcomes. The lush elegance of the period piece is enhanced by the fact that it was filmed in the real Versailles. The magnificence of the mirrored halls contrasts sharply with the dank oppressiveness of the servant quarters, where Sidonie spends her days. But instead of becoming embittered by the opulence out of her reach, she is intoxicated by its grandeur. And we, as an audience, get to share her contact high at being fingertips away from such terrible beauty.
Farewell, My Queen opens today in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and will expand nationwide soon.