French Desperation

'Farewell, My Queen' depicts the gritty end of Marie Antoinette

The citizens made sure Marie Antoinette did not survive the French Revolution. But the stories and the legend of one of the country's most-famous guillotined necks have lived on.

She was at first treated, well ... like a queen, but as France fell into economic turmoil (a downturn, oddly enough, greatly hastened by French funding of the American Revolution), Marie Antoinette was a symbol of all that was wrong with the absolute monarchy. She was loathed for outlandish spending, mocked for frivolity, and eventually arrested.

After the execution of her husband, Louis XVI, the deposed queen received a spectacularly unjust trial that included trumped-up charges of incest with her son, and she felt the cold blade of French justice. But because she was such an icon—and, if such a thing existed in the 18th century, a trendsetter—Marie Antoinette maintains a larger presence in Western culture than any other French royal who ever lived.

Farewell, My Queen takes place when her kingdom begins to crumble. As she does most mornings, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) summons her reader, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), to entertain her with novels, plays and the latest fashion magazines. But unlike most mornings, this happens to be July 14, 1789, what the world now calls Bastille Day, the unofficial beginning of the revolution.

The film depicts the dissolving empire from within; during that summer, the revolution picks up strength, and even though she is at her palace in Versailles and not in Paris, where things are truly getting ugly, the queen realizes her future is bleak.

There are several ways to make period pieces. One is to polish all the brass and hire the world's best costume designers, hoping the look alone will be so overpowering that a mild-mannered story will be good enough. Another is to try for some greater sense of reality, be it politically or economically. Farewell, My Queen manages to balance both. Parts of the film were shot at the legendary Palace of Versailles; more than 100 movies have been, including Sofia Coppola's confection, Marie Antoinette, and Dangerous Liaisons. But something about this vision is grittier and less perfect.

Director Benoît Jacquot gives Versailles a desperation, and it's apparent in the matted hair and dirty clothes of most of the characters. Marie Antoinette, predictably, fares better, but no one in the film shines quite like Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). Shimmering in a shade of green so intense it becomes a topic of conversation, Gabrielle enters the queen's chamber about midway through the film, her majesty's lone relief from the real world. It has been rumored throughout history that the two were lovers, although the film leaves that open to interpretation. But Gabrielle's radiance is not; Jacquot is showing that the excesses of France did exist, and that they took their place alongside the rest of the country in conflict.

Farewell, My Queen does almost everything subtly, and that might be its greatest quality. While Kruger has some particularly emotional scenes, it is her quiet strength and the knowledge of her own power that give her Marie Antoinette a distinctive backbone, something rarely seen in depictions of the iconic queen. It's easily her best performance to date.

Seydoux is by the book, with her character never allowing a moment for herself when she could please the lady she serves. Jacquot juggles their two worlds, both from Sidonie's viewpoint, and bolsters the impact of his film by not weighing it down in 200-year-old details. At its core, it's a film about sacrifice, and unlikely friendships and duties. And in that world, it doesn't matter if you're watching a poor servant or a queen.

Even if it's a queen who lives on centuries later.

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