Grab a small digital movie camera, jump into a time machine, blast back to France in the year 1789, somehow sneak into Versailles and you might be lucky to come up with a behind-the-scenes movie as fascinating as Benoît Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen.”
This movie blows away the dust of history to present a vivid, richly detailed account of life in the cocoon that was the royal palace of the ancien régime at the dawn of the French Revolution.
It’s not necessarily what you might think. Yes, the apartments of Marie-Antoinette bristle with overstuffed chairs, gilded moldings, a comfy bed, gold ornamentation and chandeliers. But the backstairs and servants quarters are meager and cramped, the kitchens and the gardens overrun by rats and mosquitoes from a nearby swamp plague the inhabitants.
More than once the word “prison” is used and that is what Versailles was like according to this film, which played in competition at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival and is poised to make its North American theatrical debut. The many denizens of this palace are all but trapped inside, clueless about the forces sweeping the country.
News arrives slowly. The movie begins on July 14, which even Americans recognize as the day the Bastille was sacked by a Parisian mob. But Louis XVI only learns of this the following morning when he is awakened early with the startling news.
Lovely Léa Seydoux (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”) plays Sidonie Laborde, a fictional character who manages to be at the focal point of all the tumultuous events covering a four-day period. It is through her eyes the viewer is able to bear witness to the unstable mix of personalities as they enter what we would today call a panic mode.
Sidonie is a devoted “reader” to the queen, which is to say an impressionable young servant who reads to Her Majesty from favorite books when the mood strikes the queen. German actress Diane Krüger plays Marie-Antoinette, which is perfect casting since she’s the right age and the slight German accent to her lilting French captures the queen’s Austrian roots.
Given that Sidonie is snatched here and there to do the bidding of not only her mistress but other ladies-in-waiting, she only catches brief but telling glances at what transpires from July 14 to 17 as the country plunges into revolution. Thus, you spend more time with Monsieur Moreau (Michel Robin), the king’s historiographer, than with King Louis (Xavier Beauvois) himself. Then again, Moreau’s point of view may be more apt for understanding the state of affairs.
The personalities who dominate the young woman’s life are the queen and her favorite companion, Gabrielle de Polignac (superb veteran actress Virginie Ledoyen). The Duchess of Polignac is a controversial figure in French history, a great beauty who benefited enormously from her exalted position as the queen’s favorite but whose alleged extravagances earned her enemies and whose notoriety brought disfavor on Marie-Antoinette herself.
The film, based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, takes the position that Gabrielle was the queen’s lesbian lover, as was often the rumor among the homophobic French bourgeois and working class. Thus the strongest emotions that come from the queen in the regime’s final days concern not her husband or children but rather her dearest friend whom she is already missing even though Gabrielle has not yet fled. Indeed this affair is the backbone to much of the film, which otherwise resembles a case of rats fleeing a sinking ship — albeit in this instance it’s the comfortable rats who stay as the people flee.
You would need to be French or have a degree in French history to recognize the many personalities so fleetingly introduced in this film as they stride about rooms and corridors. It’s also a very chatty movie as the dialogue must give background to everything that happens.
So this is a superficial look at the four days that literally shook the world. It does give you a sense of how closed off Versailles is from the rest of the country. When a list from the outside world of the 286 heads to be cut off begins to circulate, genuine shock and alarm follow. They had no idea!
As events unfold, Seydoux hits the intersection of genuine innocence and rapidly gained knowledge. Her eyes open for the first time. She loves her mistress no less but by movie’s end she sees what has been there all along — the self-centeredness, guile and decadence. Krüger brings a regal bearing to a woman who has literally been locked up her entire life but has made the best of it. And Ledoyen suggests both the cunning and real passion that motivate her love for the queen.
The film greatly benefits from shooting in and around Versailles itself. (Two other chateaux were also used.) The lushness of certain interiors contrasts markedly with the almost industrial kitchen and football-field length of corridors through which many workers and courtiers must hurry. The film even takes you on a brief gondola excursion on the Petite Venise, a Venetian lake created by Louis XIV and maintained by Italian families as a kind of royal plaything.
Romain Winding’s cinematography is a thing of beauty, Katia Wyszkop’s production design always pleasing to the eye while Bruno Coulais’ music underscores the pulsating urgency in the various movements in and about the frantic palace.
Opens July 13 (Cohen Media Group)
Production companies: GMT Productions, Les Films du Lendemain, Morena Films in association with France 3 Cinéma, Euro Media France, Invest Image
Cast: Diane Krüger, Léa Seydoux, Virginie Ledoyen, Xavier Beauvois, Noémie Lvovsky, Michel Robin, Julie-Marie Parmentier, Lolita Chammah, Marthe Caufman, Vladimir Consigny
Director: Benoît Jacquot
Screenwriters: Gilles Taurand, Benoît Jacquot
Based on a novel by: Chantal Thomas
Producers: Jean-Pierre Guerin
Director of photography: Romain Winding
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Music: Bruno Coulais
Costume designers: Christian Gasc, Valérie Ranchoux
Editor: Luc Barnier
No rating, 100 minutes.