Marie Antoinette is a controversial figure whose ignorance, arrogance and decadence have been documented on screen several times before. However, Farewell My Queen attempts to humanise Antoinette to some extent, focussing on her relationship with servant Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) and her friendship with Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). Whilst Diane Kruger is fine as Marie Antoinette, exuding a vulnerability and self-centred disregard for others in equal measure, it is Seydoux who impresses most as Sidonie, whose blind loyalty to the queen ultimately puts her in danger as the French Revolution builds momentum.
The film offers considerable insight into the machinations of the royal place and the various roles and relationships between the seemingly hundreds of people who work there in servitude of Antoinette and King Louis XVI, whose role in the narrative is virtually non-existent. The film captures the decadence of the royal household extremely well and everything looks fabulous, with costumes and period details meticulously rendered. The atmosphere of fear and uncertainty amongst the staff and guests at the palace is also well articulated as they find themselves conflicted between duty and self-preservation.
Seydoux, who appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and the most recent Mission Impossible film and features in this year’s Cannes Palme D’or-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour, imbues Sidonie with a certain naivety that leads her to believe that the Queen will protect her from the escalating threat. However, Marie Antoinette is much more interested in the welfare and wellbeing of Gabrielle de Polignac. While a sexual relationship between the two is hinted at, there is distinct lack of clarity proffered with regard to the nature of their friendship.
Directed by Benoit Jacquot, Farewell My Queen is a very well executed film that explores love, desire, loyalty and betrayal. At times, there are jumps in time and place and a lack of subtlety in the transitions between scenes that suggest the film has been heavily edited, although this may simply be Jacquot trying to replicate the chaos and uncertainty that pervaded the palace at this time of great social upheaval.
There is little chance that this film will appeal to a mainstream cinema audience raised on vacuous Hollywood blockbusters, but there is plenty to enjoy for those who like their cinematic fair a little more sophisticated. This is a visually sumptuous and mostly engaging film that, whilst only a speculative examination of a very specific moment in Marie Antoinette’s notorious reign, does offer some insight into the manoeuvrings of the French aristocracy at a very particular moment in history.