“Cela veut-il pour vous Madame dire quelque chose?”
Based on the novel Les adieux à la reine by Chantal Thomas, Farewell, My Queen takes us to a place that may seem familiar – Marie Antoinette’s court at Versailles in the days just before revolution – but shifts the perspective slightly to present a forensic yet subtle study of a way of life that, though it didn’t know it, was teetering on the brink of extinction. Benoît Jacquot’s 2012 film eschews political statement or even grand emotion in favour of a quiet observational style, an almost voyeuristic approach which offers an original take on events which is highly engaging.
The entry point into the royal court is Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux in scintillating form), one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting who is utterly devoted to her mistress (the ever-elegant Diane Kruger). So much so that as news begins to trickle in of the storming of the Bastille, the subsequent strange behaviour of the king and the disintegration of the social structures in the palace as people decide to flee for their lives, Sidonie remains by her queen’s side, obeying her every capricious order even when her demands eventually go beyond the pale.
Jacquot’s film looks simply gorgeous, production values are sensational and shot through with a modern sensibility that doesn’t hide the fading grandeur or grubby desperation of a delusional grouping. Kruger’s Marie is shown to have a recklessly impulsive nature from the start, neatly suggesting the impending crisis was far from the only reason for her eventual doom, and a lesbian affair with Virgine Ledoyen’s duchesse de Polignac only adds to the scandale. All viewed through the adoring eyes of Sidonie and other attentive souls below-stairs, it must have seemed that the days of obsessing over decadent celebrity were numbered…
Les adieux à la reine is a film of quiet unfolding rather than grand spectacle but even so, it offers a unique, even revelatory, take on the minutiae of life at the time – the reading habits of the rich, the fear-inducing way in which bad news spread by mouth, the reality and the recognition that emancipation wouldn’t necessarily be all that for everyone concerned. Ledoyen is coolly interesting in this supporting role and Kruger offers one of her strongest performances but make no mistake, this is Seydoux’s film through and through, her final scenes breath-taking in their intensity.