An abridged version of this review originally appeared in my column at Towleroad
There are numerous reasons why the Marie Antoinette story has fascinated artists and storytellers for centuries now. From the Court's commitment to theatrical flamboyance with a blind eye to the consequent suffering of the masses (modern pop culture echos were seen as recently as The Hunger Games this spring), to the complexity of the Queen's intimate lonely gilded cage tragedy played against the backdrop of a vast messy violent history. One could argue that the now mythic story is super relevant all over again in this era of rampant socioeconomic injustice and the angry gap between the 1 and 99%.
Benoît Jacquot clues you in early that he means to tell the famous story differently in the just released French import Farewell My Queen. For one, it's told "backstage" through the stressful lives of the servants. Consider it the French Revolution: Downton Abbey Edition... without Maggie Smith or the jokes.
The German actress Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) plays the troubled big-spending transplanted queen, Léa Seydoux (Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol), the film's actual lead, is her bosomy devoted servant Madame Laborde, and Virginia Ledoyen (8 Women) is the Queen's Object of Affection, the Duchess de Polignac. The French people were so unhappy with this rumored affair that the ostensibly powerless Duchess was fairly high on the list of the 286 heads demanded for the guillotine! [More...]
It begins on July 14th, 1789 on the fatefully violent day that will become "Bastille Day" though the Royal Court and their massive entourage of servants won't understand what's happening until the news trickles over to them in the country. This Revoluton will not be televised; Jacquot wisely never jumps over to Paris for history lessons but keeps the focus tight on Madame Lamborde's journey as she's drawn closer and closer into the Duchess & Queen's tragic orbit.
The movie is immediately unglamourous and alarmingly modern (without the gorgeously stylized anachronisms of Coppola's version). In the very first moments Laborde wakes with an itchy arm from mosquito bites, is taunted by a fellow servant with a dead rat, and scolded by her superior for arriving to see the Queen with a dirty dress. In brief, this is not your typically fussy costume drama. The 100 minute running time, the shortest of any Marie Antoinette feature that I've personally seen, is another example of the film's bracing immediacy. It's as fast on its feet as the servants who are constantly racing through the palace halls to chase the latest whimsy of her Queen. Lamborde trips clumsily twice in the film as she stomps ungracefully around, once landing quite awkwardly flat on her back.
The movie is decidedly more agile, managing quick sketches of Court life and petty hierarchies among the powerless servants, within the broad frame of the historical drama. Farewell My Queen can afford to be sketchy given the familiarity of the subject though the Duchess remains stubbornly vague as a character given how prominently she figures in the narrative (if not the screen time) and the pen sharp precision we see elsewhere.
Farewell my Queen takes place over just a few short days and each morning Lamborde is awakened more violently as the threats from Paris escalate. Late in the film, after an innocuous fade to black she jolts suddenly awake gasping and grasping her neck as if she's just lost her own head to the blade. She has possibly lost her head, albeit not literally. And she may have also lost her heart, too. It's a credit to Seydoux that she manages to keep you guessing and interested in what the mysteriously solitary Lamborde is feeling even though her character is a self described "no one". Is her devotion to the Queen your garden variety Stockholm Syndrome or is there something deeper at work? The psychologically knotty climax is both unthinkably heartless and suffused with an elegant gallows romanticism as the three central women become inextricably fused together even as they're scattering away from their home.
Oscar Chances: In a better world, sure. But with a tiny distributor and showier louder starrier French movies around this year, and Marie Antoinette (2006) having won Costume Design so recently... the best it can hope for is that a receptive audience will find it or that France submits it as their Oscar entry this year.