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Royal panic :: ’Farewell, My Queen’ looks at Marie-Antoinette as revolution looms

by Sean Au
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Monday Jul 16, 2012
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The poster art says it all. It is the last Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, with her favorite companion, the Duchess of Polignac; foreheads touching, the two women locked in an intense gaze. The curves of their bodies underneath elaborate costumes form a heart-shape figure. In the middle some distance away is another woman. She is Sidonie Laborde, the lady-in-waiting, whose role is to read books, plays, even fashion magazines to the queen.

Adapted from the celebrated novel by Chantal Thomas, "Farewell, My Queen" tells the story of the first three days of the French Revolution seen through the eyes of the reader, Sidonie, played by Léa Seydoux ("Midnight in Paris," "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol").

In this version by veteran French director Benoît Jacquot, Diane Kruger ("Inglourious Basterds," "Troy") is adorned in lavish French period fashion as Marie-Antoinette. The film provides a glimpse of an upstairs/downstairs dynamic during this crucial moment in history. What happens as the monarchy come to terms with the inevitable; as the crisis builds, staff members, long sheltered within the walls of Versailles, scramble to find the most dignified way to safety.


At the emotional core of this movie is the loyalty and longing that Sidonie has toward her queen. At a time when most in the court are thinking about their own interests, Sidonie still craves her queen’s affection, to the extent that she is elated when the monarch asks her to impersonate Gabrielle de Polastron, the Duchess of Polignac. Wearing the Duchess’ clothes, Sidonie will serve as a decoy as de Polastron escapes, despite the fact that if the ploy is discovered, Sidonie will be marked as a royal partisan. What is left more to the imagination is the nature of the relationship between Marie-Antoinette and de Polastron, played by Virginie Ledoyen ("8 Women," "The Beach"). The film suggests they’re lovers; whatever the reason, Marie-Antoinette devises this scheme for de Polastron to flee Versailles, all the while knowing that by staying put, the queen’s fate will be sealed.

Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter called "Farewell, My Queen" a "visual joy, even while its tale of a lower class girl at court infatuated with the Queen of France labors to say something relevant. Though director Benoît Jacquot opts for the grand European style of ’Girl With a Pearl Earring’ rather than a modernist rereading à la Sofia Coppola’s post-punk vision ’Marie Antoinette,’ the film has its own charm, a matter-of-fact treatment of lesbianism and magnifique costumes and settings guaranteed to please Upper East Side patrons, all of which suggests a wide art-house release for this lavish French-Spanish coprod."

While Geoffrey Macnab of London’s The Independent wrote that the director "doesn’t have any grand political statements to make, he is not trying to make a sweeping melodrama either. His approach is more like that of an anthropologist, studying a tribe in its death throes. The result is quietly fascinating."

"Farewell, My Queen" opened the Berlin Film Festival earlier in the year. Stateside, it premiered as the opening feature of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. The film opens in selected cities here a day before France’s Bastille Day. Director Benoît Jacquot talks to EDGE about this fresh perspective on the last days of Marie-Antoinette and discusses the lesbian relationship surrounding the last queen of France.


French and American reception

EDGE: "Farewell, My Queen" has played to both the French and American audiences. How would you compare the reception of the film by the two audiences?

Benoît Jacquot: In a sense, the North American public is more receptive. They do not pre-judge the film because of the subject. The French public has a longer history with cinema that is more artistic than the North American audience. North American audience is more for the fun of the film and for the entertainment value. The cinema is for entertainment. That is why I come to North America because this is a real public that I can rely on.

EDGE: The film looks at the French Revolution through the point-of-view of the character known as the reader - Sidonie Laborde. Why did you decide on this angle?

Benoît Jacquot: First of all, this film is adapted from the book of the same title, which has enjoyed success in France. The story is told from the point of view of one of Marie-Antoinette’s employees, how the queen’s reader lived through three days around the French Revolution on July 14th of 1789.


Exploring revolutionary themes

EDGE: Do you feel that through this character, you can explore more themes surrounding the French Revolution?

Benoît Jacquot: Yes, I think that this point of view from the reader brings a very unique perspective on the queen and the revolution that is little known. Certainly, this is something not known to many until now.

EDGE: What are the themes on the Revolution you feel you can explore better through this perspective?

Benoît Jacquot: I believe what interests me the most is the panic. What is panic in a place of absolute power at this specific point in history. What happens when an unexpected historic event produces this panic. It was, after all, a catastrophe that befell every person within the castle walls of Versailles.

EDGE: People who have watched the movie definitely pick up on how Sidonie, the reader, sees her relationship with Marie-Antoinette during this turbulent period.

Benoît Jacquot: Exactly, this state of panic accelerates all the psychology and sentiments of the people involved, including the physical reactions. Something that appears ordinary may become something different altogether. Without a doubt, this includes the sentimental relationship between the queen and her favorites.


An intimate relationship?

EDGE: The film boldly paints a picture of an intimate relationship between Marie-Antoinette and Gabrielle de Polastron, the Duchess of Polignac. How is this relationship received by the French people?

Benoît Jacquot: We know very well that the Queen Marie-Antoinette surrounds herself with her favorite ladies. In this moment in my film, the Duchess of Polignac is her favorite among all the women in the queen’s entourage. Whether this is a romantic relationship, I do not know. Whether it is an erotic relationship, I do not know either. (jokes) because I have not spoken to Marie-Antoinette over the phone. She has not answered her phone when I called. We can definitely try calling her again...

EDGE: Do you feel that this introduces us to lesbianism in this period even though the relationship may not be sexual?

Benoît Jacquot: Yes, surely, we know that in history, through witness accounts and the letter correspondences, there is a special friendship between the women, especially among the French aristocracy and those in Europe even. It becomes somewhat ambiguous if we see it from our eyes in this day and age. Can this be a romantic or loving relationship, I do not know, but in a way, I hope so, because the poor queen must be bored, alone in her isolation. Her husband, King Louis XVI seemed to be more interested in hunting and spent very little time with his queen. We do not know if she had a lover. It is possible that she has a intimate friendship with the women in her entourage, especially with her favorite person.


EDGE: In your research, did you learn something new about this period?

Benoît Jacquot: I learned a lot about this period, the way of life in this era. Particularly, for the purpose of making this film, how the people in the castle live with only candlelight indoors, without electricity. For instance, we are now indoors, it would be night if all the lights were turned off while it is bright and sunny outside. It is fascinating how people live with candlelight alone.

EDGE: One of the most pivotal scenes of the movie is when the reader Sidonie is being undressed to put on the clothes of Gabrielle de Polastron to serve as a decoy to save the queen’s favorite. This must be a difficult scene to film.

Benoît Jacquot: It is complicated, but to put it in simple words, being naked is also a costume in a film.

EDGE: There were lots of emotions at play expressed without dialogue in a wide shot of Sidonie’s naked body. Her feeling of betrayal, heartbreak, despair and the sense of loss of all hopes...

Benoît Jacquot: That is very good. I agree, but it is better that you say it than if I were to say it. My job is to make the film. You are free to decide what you want to say about it.

"Farewell, My Queen" opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 13, 2012. It will be opening throughout the country in the next few weeks.


Watch the trailer to "Farewell, My Queen":


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