Farewell, My Queen is maddening. It’s one of those films that has everything – a charismatic lead, a unique aesthetic, an interesting twist on the Marie Antoinette story that has the potential to reinvent it altogether – and then fails to do much with any of these things. The result is a mildly unconventional splash in a very large pond that creates a few ripples of mild, not-too-burning interest.
Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) is reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). The 14th of July 1789 dawns like any other day: Sidonie goes to the queen, reads plays and fashion magazines to her and later engages in gossip, despite herself, about the nature of the queen’s relationship with the salacious Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). Then something in the air changes. Aristocrats speak in English to keep the matter from their servants. Rumours begin to fly that something terrible has happened in Paris. And over the three days that follow the storming of the Bastille, the glory of Versailles fades to chaos and nothingness.
Unlike many of the servants at Versailles, Sidonie is loyal to the aristocracy. She harbours no ill-feeling towards them and seems to truly believe that monarchy is the best way of keeping France from tumbling into the abyss. Tragically, her deep, unrequited love for the queen convinces her that Antoinette appreciates her support and cannot do without her. So she stays instead of fleeing. Little does Sidonie know that the queen considers her to be quite expendable and will repay her loyalty in the most selfish way possible.
“Nothing is more false,” says Antonia Fraser in Versailles: The Dream of a King, “than pictures of Versailles as this stately place with everyone gliding about”. It is in cleaving to this concept, grounded in fact rather than cinematic tradition, that Farewell, My Queen distinguishes itself from other period dramas. The film’s upstairs/downstairs structure enables us to see a side of Versailles that is never explored in other films. The servants’ quarters are cramped, dirty, inhospitable, packed with people whose elegant dress contrasts strikingly with their rude surroundings and infested with rats both dead and alive. The presence of these enterprising rodents is not confined to the servants’ quarters, and can be found everywhere from the Queen’s apartments to the Hall of Mirrors. The rats, of course, also serve a metaphorical purpose when people begin to flee Versailles as rats desert a ship.
Rats aside, Farewell, My Queen is also unique in making Versailles look threatening. When the place begins to empty out of its habitual hoard of aristocrats and exhausted servants, it comes to resemble a vast, empty city that reminds one of Pripyat. Once a place of safety where it was impossible to be alone at any time of the day or night, it becomes a quasi-dystopian purgatory where frightened women wander the halls, knowing that if they are attacked, nobody will be able to help them. Apart from the film’s treatment of Antoinette’s sexuality, it is this refreshing and original portrayal of Versailles that will probably make it significant to posterity.
As hard as it is believe, the film’s acting is so bland that its central question of ‘What if the historical rumour about Marie Antoinette having lesbian lovers was actually true?’ becomes the least interesting part of the production. Léa Seydoux carries the whole film by herself, and her co-stars are so inconsequential that they are inevitably bulldozed by her even when she’s off-screen. It’s a mesmerising performance. Enigmatic to everyone who meets her, and a mystery to her fellow servants, Sidonie has cut herself off from the world, and it is the sheer force of Seydoux’s performance that makes us eager to learn more about her. Most importantly, Seydoux also excels at conveying the suppression of powerful emotions in a way that is heartbreakingly subtle. When Sidonie realises that the queen is quite willing to let her die if it means saving her lover, Gabrielle de Polignac, Sidonie’s face is like a skyscraper collapsing; all without the slightest hint of screaming, crying or overdramatising.
Unfortunately, Seydoux’s co-stars let her down. Lolita Chammah leaves little impression as Sidonie’s colleague Louison. Vladimir Consigny as the pointless Paulo is face-punchingly annoying. The film is a waste of Virginie Ledoyen, who is every bit as hollow as she is no doubt meant to be, and so many lifeless, personalityless men come and go that one has no idea who they are or why we should care about them.
The greatest disaster of all is Diane Kruger as Antoinette. She is strikingly lifeless, demonstrates all the candour of a dressed-up straw doll, and does not even manage to stir our emotions when kicking and screaming with grief. She inspires none of the compassion or hatred of Jane Seymour’s performance in La Révolution Française (1989), and at least Kirsten Dunst’s stint as the doomed queen in Marie Antoinette (2006) managed to make us cringe. Diane Kruger’s Antoinette does not made the audience feel much of anything, and if we can’t feel anything, why on earth should we believe that Sidonie can? It seems disappointing that the first cinematic portrayal of Marie Antoinette’s (probably invented) lesbian love affairs should feature a woman who makes being bisexual look like the dullest thing in existence.
So, while Farewell, My Queen features a lovely performance by Léa Seydoux, a very original portrayal of Versailles and significant breaking of ground with its story of a bisexual Marie Antoinette, it is too bogged down in comatose storytelling and bad acting to make much of a dent in the period drama universe.