The panic that engulfed Versailles in the early days of the French Revolution is captured from a murky side angle in “Farewell, My Queen,” a well-observed but emotionally muted costume drama that might well have been titled “My Week With Marie Antoinette.” Pivoting on the queen’s relationship with one of her most devoted courtiers, Benoit Jacquot’s venom-tipped account of palatial intrigue and royal oblivion scrupulously maintains a servant’s-eye view but winds up holding the viewer at an unrewarding distance. Cast names should lend the picture some Euro arthouse traction, though Stateside biz won’t far exceed that of Jacquot’s recent work.
As adapted by Jacquot and Gilles Taurant from Chantal Thomas’ 2002 historical fiction, this French-Spanish co-production filters its momentous events through a realist prism, operating within a tight timeframe — July 14-17, 1789 — and adhering to the unspoken requirement that Lea Seydoux’s protagonist be present in nearly every scene. These ground rules allow for a partial, fragmented view of events while effectively conveying the whirlwind of confusion and gossipy sense of schadenfreude buzzing in the corridors of Versailles before the regime’s collapse.
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There’s barely a ripple of anxiety in an idyllic early scene at the Petit Trianon, the chateau refuge where Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) enjoys the company of her personal reader, Sidonie Laborde (Seydoux). Quiet and reserved, as crafty as she is literate, this dark-haired young consort treasures her unusually intimate if platonic rapport with the queen; occasionally, Sidonie’s mild liberties draw the ire of fussy first lady-in-waiting Mme. Campan (Noemie Lvovsky), ever-attentive to matters of protocol even as crisis looms.
And loom it does, as Sidonie learns the next morning of the storming of the Bastille, an event that throws the palace into a royal commotion. Sidonie’s disillusionment is twofold: As it gradually dawns on her that no one at Versailles is safe, she also realizes her infatuation with the queen means little to Marie Antoinette herself, who is entirely besotted with the worldly Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). The mildly Sapphic overtones come to a modest boil in an emotionally fraught scene played out in full view of Sidonie, peering through a wide-open doorway that becomes a proscenium arch for the audience.
The spectacle of the queen’s endlessly delusional and self-absorbed behavior as perceived by her bemused but duty-bound servants becomes a motif throughout. Indeed, the film’s shrewdest aspect is the sly, amused manner in which it observes how clueless monarchs and noblemen react to the news that their subjects want them beheaded; in Marie Antoinette’s case, it means tearfully rereading and burning old love letters while ordering her attendants to pack up her jewelry. At the same time, Jacquot proves nimbly attentive to the shifting undercurrents below stairs, as Sidonie uses her every secret and wile to glean information and gain the queen’s favor.
D.p. Romain Winding’s mobile camera takes a decidedly rough-hewn, inelegant view of its opulent surroundings, often chasing Sidonie down candlelit hallways from a position behind the back of her head. Despite this visual strategy, psychological illumination is not forthcoming from either the script’s blank conception of Sidonie or Seydoux’s recessive performance; the actress gives good pout but reveals little more than a mild talent for deceit beneath her coolly petulant exterior. Her closing lines attempt to provide some pathos and insight into the mind of this commoner who had the brief good fortune to witness the beginning of the end for Marie Antoinette, but Sidonie and, consequently, the film itself remain all too easy to shrug off.
A director who has carved out a strong niche in femme-centric psychological drama, from Isabelle Huppert starrers “The School of Flesh” and “Villa Amalia” to the recent “Deep in the Woods” with Isild Le Besco, Jacquot elicits more robust performances from his other actresses. Though perhaps too beautiful to entirely sell Marie Antoinette’s bemoaning of her own lost youth, Kruger nicely projects an air of regal desperation, while Ledoyen makes the most of an underwritten role as the haughty and scandalous aristocrat who arouses Sidonie’s jealousy and possibly something more. Male thesps register more fleetingly; Jacquot’s fellow helmer Xavier Beauvois has a brief, colorless turn as Louis XVI, and Vladimir Consigny stands out as a louche gondolier too quickly dropped from the proceedings.
Though shot at Versailles, never an inexpensive proposition, “Farewell, My Queen” belies its budget with a grungy handheld aesthetic that relies mostly on natural light, at times approximating the look and feel of a neorealist costume drama. Katia Wyszkop’s production design is well attuned to the squalor of the servants’ quarters, where mosquitos and dead rats are always turning up, and Bruno Coulais’ score uses sawing violins to usher along the action and summon a sense of dread.