Film Review: Farewell, My Queen

An impossibly lavish historical tapestry comes to breathtakingly vivid life in Benoît Jacquot’s ultra-intimate account of the most famous French queen of them all.

Versailles, 1789. In the opulent court of Louis XVI, in the final days before the French Revolution, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), official reader to Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), watches her idolized mistress suddenly transform from a frivolous monarch who brazenly flaunts her love affair with her favorite, Mme. De Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), into a truly tragic figure facing the demise of her entire world.

Marie Antoinette has long intrigued filmmakers, from Woody Van Dyke‘s 1938 Hollywood fairytale version to Sofia Coppola’s postmodern 2006 take, but no one has captured this fascinating subject as well as Benoît Jacquot does in Farewell, My Queen. Intimacy is the key word, as the director thrillingly sends you headlong into all of the palace intrigue seen from the unique vantage point of the underlings, not the aristocrats. This approach effectively dilutes anything smacking of the hollow, grandiose posturing you often get in portrayals of historical figures, and there is an extraordinary frisson at seeing them behave when not on public display.

Jacquot is not only a master storyteller, but has a pitch-perfect sense of casting and acute sense of period detail. You can fully relax, knowing that you’re in the most capable hands imaginable, and simply revel in the mesmerizing, rich spectacle he lovingly presents. Minute yet telling points, like the rosewater with which the Queen massages Sidonie for her mosquito bites, or the flower Sidonie painstakingly embroiders for a royal gown, add extraordinary textural depth. Sidonie’s grey, gloomy lodgings in the very same building as the resplendent royal chambers (the draperies alone are worth the admission price) offer a stunning contrast.

Kruger creates a magnificently multidimensional portrait of Antoinette, sensual as the sublimely entitled royal libertine who exploits her every advantage, and then heartbreaking as she faces the bewildering task of packing up her impossible life in an (aborted) attempt at flight from the Revolution and saying farewell to everything she has ever known. Ledoyen is irresistibly convincing as the alluring, elegant Polignac, making it easy to believe in her lesbian affair with the Queen which Jacquot bravely and sensually posits here. Seydoux adds even more loveliness to the film, which is already one unimaginably lavish celebration of estrogen, and has serious acting chops to boot, making Sidonie a real, identifiably embattled protagonist, her eyes opened ever wider by what she is privileged enough to see.

At times, Jacquot’s Versailles seems as brilliantly and busily populated as any Altman film. A score of France’s greatest actors have a fine old time bustling about, their every butterfly movement a fraught reaction to their monarch’s slightest whim: Noémie Lvovsky as Sidonie’s all-knowing superior at court; Anne Benoît as Rose Bertin, the Queen’s legendary dressmaker and first couturiere in history; the treasurable Michel Robin as the venerable court librarian, etc.

All technical elements are flawless, from the jaw-dropping costumes to the glowing cinematography, exquisite music, and the unmatched setting itself: Versailles, in all its glory, to which Jacquot seems to have had wondrously free access.