By Janine Gericke.
Versailles calls to mind images of opulence, decadence, couture, ostentatious design and, of course, Marie Antoinette. Filmmaker Benoît Jacquot’s film Farewell, My Queen, based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, shows viewers both sides of this famous palace. The beautiful side, with its lush fabrics, golden hues and encrustations of crystal and glass, where the palace seems so full of life and light. And the ugly side, with its confined corners, muted tones, and dank exteriors, where the palace’s servants scurry though their rounds. By contrasting both sides, we see how Versailles is doomed—we can smell the rot in its foundations. The bright, luxurious façade is wearing thin. Versailles is no longer a palace built on wealth and good fortune, but one built on denial and despair.
The story opens on the same day as the storming of the Bastille, spanning the first days of the French Revolution. Jacquot depicts Versailles as if its inhabitants are set apart on their own little island. When the film begins, it seems like any other day at the palace. Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), the Queen’s reader, is headed to the Queen’s (Diane Kruger) chambers to read anything from fashion magazines to novels to her. Some of the most touching scenes in the film involve Sidonie reading to the Queen. There is a palpable infatuation here. Sidonie seems completely taken with her.
We see the last days at the palace through Sidonie’s eyes. We know what will happen, but she is scared, worried for her beloved Queen. Sidonie is curious about the world, but never ventures outside of the palace, due to her obligations. Being the Queen’s reader gives her access to a world that her station would never otherwise allow. She is also privy to the Queen’s private affairs, including her relationship with Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), who was the Queen’s closest friend and possible lover.
This is very much a film about women, the women of Versailles. Diane Kruger, a gem, is wonderful as Marie Antoinette. She gives the iconic and controversial figure a certain vulnerability and idealism. Her performance flawlessly ranges from the playful and fun side of Antoinette, to a desperate and terrified Queen. Léa Seydoux, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses, brings Sidonie to life. She is a bit naïve, a bit clumsy, and still learning her way. She has an insatiable curiosity that we all remember growing up with, leading her to question everything.
Versailles itself is one of the most striking characters in the film. Although some sets were built to recreate parts of the palace that no longer remain, Jacquot was able to film in many of the parts of Versailles that still stand. The filmmaker opens up the frame for these scenes, letting the majesty of Versailles engulf the screen. The residents of the palace seem so small compared to the vastness of the palace. In many scenes with the Queen, Jacquot opts for close-ups, creating intimacy, making it a place where we want to be. By contrast, he uses tight shots in the scenes involving the servants’ quarters. These scenes create a feeling of claustrophobia, making it more of a place where no one would want to be.
With this film, I found myself more interested in the inhabitants of the palace then the story itself. Versailles is spectacular, and I felt that even more so after learning that the film was made there. This is a beautifully directed performance-driven film, where the actors display incredible pathos and connection to their characters, but the performances themselves were more interesting then the plot they drive.
Farewell, My Queen was the opening night film at this year’s 55th San Francisco International Film Festival. The film is currently in theaters.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.