My interest in the French Revolution began several years ago. I was in Paris and shamelessly decided this was where I’d read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities for the first time. Putting aside the face-palming aspects of that decision (cause, you know, I must have looked REAL cool reading THAT book in THAT city), I can’t deny the huge impression the work left on me. Dickens’ description of a city and country descending into madness was utterly enthralling. I was hooked.
In the interim since then I’ve read a number of books on the revolution – both fictional and historical. I’ve also seen many films dealing with the subject, including, unsurprisingly, the terrible 1980’s version of A Tale of Two Cities starring Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). Each one of these films brings something unique in their approach to the revolution. Some channel the event’s passion, while others strive to unpack the esoteric issues at stake (1983’s powerful Danton does both). Farewell, My Queen however illustrates the event’s surrealism, that is, the way the French Revolution destabilized a society’s power structures, altered individual conceptions of identity and helped usher in a new world.
Farewell, My Queen captures these feelings through evocative, dreamlike aesthetics, specifically its costumes, set-design and cinematography. Trumping this in terms of beauty, however, is the film’s primary cast, a trio of gorgeous women that will turn even the most critically-minded viewers into that horny wolf from the ol’ Tex Avery cartoons.
All these women also give strong performances, rendered more impressive by how they stick out even amongst all the pomp and frills that surround them. Embodied by Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger and Virginie Ledoyen, the film’s three primary characters provide the basis for an intriguing story set at a unique historical point.
It is also a frustrating one, chilly in its emotional core and opaque with its characterizations. Despite the loveliness of the production and some scenes of pure bravado, Farewell, My Queen is not a great French Revolution film or a great historical movie in general. It’s simply good. You won’t feel like you stumbled through a portal into the past, but it’s also no stagnant wax museum.
Despite what it says online, Farewell, My Queen does not chronicle anything about the last days of the French Revolution; it’s actually the complete opposite. Beginning in 1789, one day before the fall of the Bastille, Farewell, My Queen focuses on the very beginning of the revolution. It was a time where, as Dickens wrote, “everything […] was normal,” or as Sweeney Todd once caterwauled, it was when there were “two kinds of men and only two,” where there is one “staying put in his proper place, and […] one with his foot in the other one’s face.” You get the idea.
The film’s events center squarely on the court of King Louis XVI, which spends its days lounging about in the opulent grandeur of Versailles. Agathe-Sidonie Laborde (Seydoux) is a reader/seamstress who directly serves Queen Marie Antoinette (Kruger). Acerbic, literate, fierce and proud, Sidonie is a woman ahead of her time. She is not content to put up with the glib innuendos tossed her way by boorish gondola rowers, or lend credence to the haughty disapproval of her direct superior on the court. She also has an usual amount of intimacy with Marie Antoinette, who often requests for Sidonie to read to her in her personal quarters.
Through their interactions, it becomes clear that Sidonie is fascinated by the queen in a way that may even possess erotic undertones. French director Benoît Jacquot establishes this through a scene where Antoinette notices that Sidonie’s arms are covered in welts (from mosquitoes apparently) and then personally rubs on a soothing rosewater mixture.
The implicit sensuality of Antoinette’s actions, and the possible connotations this has regarding her sexuality, becomes more pronounced following the introduction of Virginie Ledoyen’s Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, the Queen’s favorite and possible lover. Shockingly beautiful, Ledoyen plays de Polastron like she is an untouchable superwoman, equal or even superior to the queen herself. In observing them, Seydoux’s Sidonie becomes even more fixated on the royal world, and when news of the Bastille’s fall finally reaches Versailles she declares her intention to stay at Antoinette’s side until the bitter end.
Considering the importance of a day like July 14, 1789 (Bastille Day), it is only appropriate that the event’s impact be depicted in a shocking, chaotic fashion. The trick, of course, in a film like Farewell, My Queen, is conveying these feelings through the story’s myopically narrow scope. There are almost no scenes in the film set outside the walls and grounds of Versailles, and thus news from Paris often comes to the characters as a second or third-hand account. Jacquot communicates this through several long tracking shots of Versailles’s dark halls, which are lit by dozens of candle-carrying court members milling about and whispering intently. The director doubles-down on this topsy-turvy feeling of unreality from this point onward, most spectacularly during a protracted scene where Sidonie rushes through a surreally depopulated Versailles to attend to the Queen following the Bastille news.
Touches of surrealism are fine qualities for a film such as this, as it so acutely deals with a turning point where notions of government, wealth, equality and citizenry were being dramatically reevaluated. Members of the film’s main cast (which is primarily women) also do an excellent job in communicating this theme, particularly Kruger as Antoinette. Despite being of German origin, Kruger brings something special to her role as the Queen of France, suggesting an inner-tension between her aristocratic status and her common humanity. From my perspective, it’s a considerable achievement to turn a figure as polarizing as Antoinette into a highly sympathetic one. As much fun as it is to watch her and her fellow Ancien Regime cake-eaters squirm about losing their melons, I was struck by how, slowly but surely, I came to understand and empathize with her.
The other cast members, while good, have considerably less to do. Although functioning as the main character and audience surrogate, Lea Seydoux’s Sidonie is too much of a blank slate to earn much emotional investment. She is also saddled with some dialogue that flirts dangerously close with being tin-eared. (“Words are all I possess. I wield them well.”) Even more spartan is the characterization of Ledoyen’s de Polastron, who basically plays the part mute. These deficiencies are prohibitive to Jacquot’s film having a truly monumental impact, undercutting audacious touches like the story’s assertion that romantic feelings did in fact exist between Antoinette and de Polastron (a long-held suspicion). Despite these imperfections, the film is an pretty good entry into the canon of French Revolution films. It’s a much-appreciated glimpse at a rigid society ensconced in the past, which, in a matter of hours, was forced to leap forward.