The French are revolting and the plot isn’t much better
Farewell, My Queen is on its face another costume porn drama. But beneath the pretty façade there lies a bold attempt at political and personal drama. Unfortunately, director Benoît Jacquot wasn’t quite able to deliver on that score.
The film centres on Sidonie Laborde, played by Lea Seydoux, Marie Antoinette’s official reader (yes monarchs had official people to read them bedtime stories). The impact of the fall of the Bastille and the beginnings of the French Revolution are seen through her eyes. Similar to Downfall (A 2004 German film about the last days of Hitler’s life), Farewell, My Queen forces the viewer to use a civilian as our proxy to important historical events.
This device works well for the most part. Jacquot makes Versailles seem like the last days of Rome– servants steal Marie Antoinette’s linens from right under her nose and royals and commoners alike roam Versailles halls drunkenly, scrambling for a last lay while peasants rush the gates.
But as a narrative device, Laborde herself is lacking. A subplot involving her mysterious origins seems shoehorned into the plot in order to add some depth to the character. Jacquot wants her to represent all of the faceless mass of revolution and while it’s an interesting idea, the viewer doesn’t need that part of the plot explicitly spelled out. By virtue of Laborde’s position, we know she’s on the outside looking in. Had this part been left out there might have been more room for interpretation of what was truly fascinating at the time: the big giant violent revolution that was gearing up just outside her doors.
Farewell, My Queen has been advertised as a slightly more salacious version of the revolution tale, treating the rumoured affair between Marie Antoinette and Gabrielle de Polignac [Virginie Ledoyen] as fact. In reality, the film treats the affair in a very respectful manner. Antoinette’s affections are real where Polignac may have more secrets to hide.
Diane Krueger is one of those actresses who often slips underneath the radar in North America. In Inglorious Bastards, her performance was overshadowed by Christopher Waltz and to a lesser extent Michael Fassbender. Yet she has the same magnetic character actor chops that make her fun and exciting to watch on screen. Her role in Farewell, My Queen is not large but the second she’s on screen Krueger engages the viewer. Unlike Kirsten Dunst’s version of Marie Antoinette, Krueger plays her hot and cold, at one moment breaking down and the next stoically planning her escape. It’s probably the closest we’ve gotten yet to an accurate portrayal of the infamous queen.
There is absolutely no way that Farewell, My Queen won’t be included in the Oscar nominations for best costume design and production design in 2013. It’s one of the prettiest costume dramas to come out in recent years. It’s a shame then that the meat of the film isn’t better developed.