Farewell, My Queen

Wake up, Sidonie

Marie Antoinette was in some ways the Marilyn Monroe of her time.  Hearsay about her sexuality, relationships, and social exploits was as important to the general public as politics or war.  It made no difference that she was running France (alongside Louis XVI) and not starring in glitzy rom-coms; her life, misconstrued and misunderstood by her audience, may as well have been one.

Benoit Jacquot’s biopic, Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), however, does not reflect the formula tale of romantic dithering and sexual deviance so many love to attach to Antoinette.  Based upon a historical novel by Chantal Thomas, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film is not so much a plotted movie as it is a fascinating character study.  This intimate narrative centers around Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), the Queen’s reader, who observes the ongoing routine of the royal family before, during, and after the storming of the Bastille.  The most mesmerizing element of this routine is that the higher Sidonie seems to climb in the castle, the less it seems to change: on the ground, people scuttle about, nobles abandon the Queen, citizens desert.  Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), though, despairs because she knows she’ll soon be separated from her lover, Gabrielle de Polastron (Virgine Ledoyen), duchesse de Polignac.  In the novel, the protagonist plays a sort of fly-on-the-wall (not dissimilar from the role of Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick), but in the film, we tend to care about her a bit more than anyone else.  She gets involved, she feels, she loves, she hurts.

The film’s transitions are accomplished via an effective motif: Sidonie is repeatedly awakened from dreamless sleep, and rarely by natural causes.  She is shaken to life by fellow servants, especially Louison (Lolita Chammah), her excitable friend who insists she’ll die an old maid if she doesn’t start seeing men.  Louison goes so far as suggesting Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), a snarky gondola driver who knows some Italian and acts like a bit of a lecher.  Sidonie’s single tryst with Paolo, however, is cut short, and her heart isn’t truly in it.  Instead, she dwells upon an earlier meeting with the Queen – in the scene, Sidonie instinctively scratches some mosquito bites on her arm, and the Queen personally rubs a home remedy into the bites while the two share bounteous eye contact.  Seydoux’s expression here (ingeniously focused upon for longer than it might be in the nonexistent Hollywood version of this film) reveals multitudes: we instantly know that Sidonie is falling for the Queen – no definite statements about sexuality are needed; in fact, the Queen’s own affair with Gabrielle is not even given a sideways look by her ladies in waiting – but we also know that her heart must eventually be broken.  She pledges to stay by the Queen’s side forever, and Marie Antoinette soon uses her meetings with Sidonie to vent about her love for Gabrielle, and it’s evident (without use of so much as one flashback) that Sidonie is thinking the same thoughts about her Queen, wondering if she can once again achieve the same smile she had after leaving the Queen’s chambers that day.  Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), an old-timer who works in the library and befriends Sidonie, sees right through the latter’s claims of loyalty and recognizes the love she harbors for one who is absolutely off-limits.  Our feelings for Sidonie, a protagonist who truly deserves the best, make it all the more difficult to witness Antoinette’s histrionic monologues about Gabrielle, whose motivations and feelings about the affair are left (perhaps wisely) ambiguous (note, however, that she never once cries for the Queen).

Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux, two of the best actresses (bilingual and otherwise) working today, make a great pair, and the sparsity of their encounters makes their scenes together all the more tense and desperate.  We know their time together is limited and we know the Queen is becoming unstable; we need Sidonie to make the most of every conversation, and Léa (who oddly enough appeared as the primary villain in Hollywood’s Mission: Impossible 4 earlier this year) spares absolutely nothing.  She glows with a sort of anti-Hollywood beauty, showing off what they’d tell her to hide over here (I’m thinking in terms of what can be seen on her face).  Kruger, the standout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a few years ago, plays Marie Antoinette without stylizing, glamorizing, exploiting, or judging her, and that’s something I’m not sure we’ve yet seen onscreen.  In fact, the whole package has a vibe similar to last year’s My Week With Marilyn in terms of its treatment of the subject and the eyes through which we see her.  You could not have asked for a better pair of actresses to fill these roles.

Because the film is a character study and not one of the climactic biopics to which some of us are accustomed, the story feels unfinished in the end, if only because the action ends where the action of most of these types of films begins.  In a brash act of selfishness, the Queen asks (or perhaps commands) Sidonie, with whom she now shares a great trust, to dress as Gabrielle and accompany the real Gabrielle (who will dress as a servant) on her exeunt from the capital.  The intention: if any of the numerous folks calling for Gabrielle’s head discover her, they’ll kill Sidonie instead, and Gabrielle will be spared.  Despite Madame Campan’s (Noémie Lvovsky) rather bold instructions not to accept this proposition, Sidonie realizes that this is the one way she can show her devotion (not necessarily as a romantic partner, but as a friend, follower, and keeper of a precious trust).

Here is where the film’s other motif (an image pattern consisting of only two occurrences) closes: there are two “undressings” in the story, the first of which occurs when Sidonie is sent by the Queen to wake Gabrielle.  Instead, Sidonie compulsively removes the single bedsheet from Gabrielle’s body and beholds her naked form flung haphazardly across the bed.  Later, the Queen instructs Sidonie, who has worn the same outfit (rather, been stuffed into the same corset and gown) throughout the entire film, to undress and get into Gabrielle’s clothing.  As her clothes crumple onto the floor and she stands nude before the Queen, Sidonie lifts her hands to cover herself, assuming a position similar to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.  While she’s being sized up and transformed, tears stream from her eyes, though she makes no sound and her face remains solid and straight.  Does she cry because she’s afraid she’ll be killed?  Does she feel betrayed by the Queen?  Or is it the crippling knowledge that she’ll never see this woman, who never truly knew her but may have loved her in another life, again?  When the Queen finally touches her lips to Sidonie’s (and I’ll leave it up to you as to why it happens), Sidonie does not kiss back.

As the entrancing look at these characters ends, Sidonie introduces herself to us.  “Soon,” she says, “I will be no one.”  Little does she know, the hearts of patient film-goers will disagree.  Sidonie, where are you now?

Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen) (2012); written by Chantal Thomas and Benoit Jacquot; directed by Benoit Jacquot; starring Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virgine Ledoyen.

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