Servitude amid the insurgency
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, July 27, 2012
As the one-percenter prototype, Marie Antoinette was a carnival of opulence, parading bolts of embroidered silk and ostentatious hair towers. And yet, sometimes the most obvious spectacle isn’t the only sight worth seeing. In the spirit of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” the French film “Farewell, My Queen” looks at the final days of Louis XVI’s reign through the eyes of a servant.
The movie opens on July 14, 1789, which unfolds much like any other day at Versailles; news traveled slowly in pre-Twitter times. Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux) is tasked with reading to the queen (Diane Kruger), who appears to have a rather serious case of attention-deficit disorder. She comes across as unfocused but playful, although the demeanor of her attendees, who exude a mix of fear and reverence, indicates the possibility of mood swings. While Sidonie approaches the monarch with some trepidation, she also looks on with a kind of adoration that her fellow servants don’t seem to share.
As information about the storming of the Bastille trickles in, Sidonie and her cohorts are spellbound by uncertainty. News is scarce, and while everyone claims to know something, it’s difficult to distinguish gossip from fact. The queen, meanwhile, alternates between making typically frivolous demands and plotting her escape. While many flee, choosing survival over loyalty, Sidonie remains, even as Marie Antoinette becomes increasingly volatile.
The dynamic between the women is subtle yet engrossing thanks to memorable performances from the actresses. Kruger has been notable in recent years more for her fashionable appearances on the red carpet than cinematic star turns, but she proves her skills here as the unpredictable, self-pitying beauty. Seydoux also is an actress of note, though her steely portrayal of Sidonie sometimes borders on sulky, which turns her, intentionally or not, into less of a sympathetic character.
The film, based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, excels in its sense of realism, even amid the fairy-tale setting. There are dead rats and itchy bug bites and utter darkness in a candle-less room at night; at one point, a character slips while running along a slick marble floor. That authenticity amplifies the impact when grave news arrives. A particularly memorable scene involves the delivery of a pamphlet with the names of 286 people the revolutionaries seek to behead. One man feebly remarks that he’s number 21. These moments, as characters grapple with the unknowable, prove gripping if not altogether sickening. And while Marie Antoinette’s fate is widely known, the film creates suspense with Sidonie’s tenuous destiny.
The foreboding and chaos contrast neatly with the lavish costumes and sets. Versailles takes on the feel of a gilded fortress, behind which the serving class hopes to hide. But money can’t buy everything, including, in this case, security.
Contains nudity, some strong language and depictions of death. In French with English subtitles.