’Farewell, My Queen’
One of the supreme ironies of history is that the French Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and created the first modern totalitarian state, guaranteed the undying fame of Marie Antoinette (1755-93), the last Queen of France. She was and remains a polarizing, often misunderstood figure. Farewell, My Queen , a superb French film opening on July 13 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, gives a riveting account of what she faced in the three days following the July 14, 1789 storming of the Bastille. Only six weeks earlier, the queen had been at the bedside of her dying older son.
A Hapsburg Archduchess raised in Vienna, Marie Antoinette’s sketchy education left her ill-prepared for life at the French court. Her remarkable, ruthless mother, the Empress Maria-Theresa, used her children as pawns in a complex game of diplomatic chess. Marie Antoinette’s marriage in 1770 to the future Louis XVI was Maria-Theresa’s most brilliant achievement in that sphere. The Empress charged her daughter with one overriding objective: to advance the interests of the Hapsburgs. Alas, the union in France was unpopular from the beginning.
The film, based on Chantal Thomas’ novel, is presented from the perspective of Lea, the queen’s reader (Sidonie Laborde), and focuses on the relationship between Marie Antoinette (an impressive Diane Kruger) and her favorite, Gabrielle, Duchess de Polignac (the lovely Virginie Ledoyen). Among many things, the Grub Street press labeled the queen another Messalina, with countless male lovers (including her younger brother-in-law.) She was also accused of lesbian affairs with her most intimate friends, the Princesse de Lamballe and Madame de Polignac.
Lea’s task is to amuse her majesty by reading to her. Tensions at Versailles were high on the evening of July 14, which made her challenge greater than normal. The queen is gracious, distracted, self-centered, and worried about the future. She and the king’s two brothers, along with most members of the court, urge Louis XVI to flee to Metz in northeastern France, near the border with the Austrian Netherlands. "Metz is not Paris," she says, certain the royal family will be safe there. (She was likely right.) The king, in today’s terms, was passive-aggressive. He had a horror of bloodshed and stubbornly refused to leave Versailles. (His brothers, the Comptes de Provence and Artois, had no such compunctions. They survived the Revolution and, after the fall of Napoleon, reigned as Louis XVIII and Charles X, respectively.)
The awestruck Lea is dismayed by the way Madame de Polignac treats Her Majesty. Gabrielle, confident of the queen’s affection, doesn’t immediately respond to Marie-Antoinette’s summons. When she does, the queen urges her to leave - aware that she is despised by the mob. Gabrielle barely protests. Lea, who believes the queen’s courtesies towards her are an indication of deep affection, is given a shock of reality when told that she, too, must depart - disguised as Madame de Polignac, while the Duchess and the Duke pretend to be servants. Ever faithful, Lea agrees. Grief-stricken, the queen and her favorite kiss, caress, swear eternal friendship, and say good-bye. Lea acts her part effectively, and the de Polignacs escape.
Kruger captures Marie Antoinette’s admired regal bearing, her pride in her birth and in being queen, and her unshakable sense of entitlement. Yet she also reveals the frightened wife and mother facing unprecedented dangers with determination and, ultimately, great courage. Laborde effectively conveys the adoration a simple girl would feel for a monarch, defending her against every accusation, even agreeing to risk her life to please Her Majesty. Had the de Polignacs been recognized while fleeing, she would have been arrested and killed. The scenes of her impersonating Gabrielle are delightful. The charismatic Ledoyen doesn’t shy away from showing Madame de Polignac’s grasping, opportunistic nature, yet makes it easy to see why she captivated the queen. (Madame de Polignac died in Vienna in 1793, shortly after learning that the queen had been guillotined.)
Benoit Jacquot’s swift direction is suspenseful. The insular world of the court, with nobles often living in cramped apartments in the palace - the price they gladly paid for proximity to the king - is accurately recreated. The script, which Jacquot wrote with Gilles Taurand, is sympathetic towards the queen, but doesn’t canonize her. The Versailles locations are glorious. The costumes, by Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux, are appropriately lavish. Roman Winding’s cinematography captures candle-lit rooms, filled with elegant, gleaming ormolu-mounted furnishings.
Marie-Antoinette’s infatuation with Gabrielle de Polignac is beyond dispute, but it’s unlikely that their relationship was physical. Romantic, intimate friendships between women were commonplace among the ruling classes, and were expressed in language identical to that used with lovers. If the queen was ever unfaithful to Louis XVI, it was with handsome Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. His desperate attempts to save the royal family resulted in the tragic 1792 Flight to Varennes.
Being labeled a tribade, the 18th-century French word for lesbian, would make the queen a gay icon. She fascinated the iconoclastic, openly homosexual Jean Genet, for example, who wrote that she was one of four historical women who interested him - the others were the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc, and Madame Curie.
Farewell, My Queen is vastly superior to Sofia Coppola’s disappointing Marie-Antoinette (2006) with Kirsten Dunst, or MGM’s extravagant 1938 version, starring Norma Shearer. Anyone interested in how unforeseen circumstances shape lives and create legends will relish this movie. After watching it, audiences familiar and unfamiliar with Marie Antoinette’s life will feel as though they witnessed actual events as they unfolded. In French, with English subtitles.