Monday, 11 January 2016

Review: Farewell, My Queen (2012 Film)

Three days before the ancien regime’s fall, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) acts as the personal reader of Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Although a servant, her life at Versailles is comfortable, and offers her intimacy with her beloved Queen. In the following days she witnesses Versailles’ foundations devoured by the Revolution.

This is a story of the French Revolution, but it does not focus on violence. It foreshadows death and destruction, of course. The aristocrats know the populace want their heads, and they fear the Third Estate may well get their desire. But this death and destruction lays in the future, beyond the three day scope of this film. At most, violence erupts off-screen. 

This is the French Revolution as seen from the Ivory Tower, an intimate portrait of its inhabitants. We, the audience, experience these revolutionary days through a relative few characters, Laborde the most prominent. Only for a few scenes does the film leave Versailles. For most of its run-time we occupy the vast rooms and corridors of the Palace. Intimate close-ups comprise nearly every scene, and the film is intimate in nature. The Revolution’s political and moral ramifications often seem less important than Laborde’s relationship with Marie-Antoinette, and her unrequited love for her.

Had this film depicted a different revolution/political upheaval, this micro-view, focussed on love, would likely have seemed reductive, very ‘Hollywood’. The copious dramatizations of the French Revolution, however, lead me to conclude this film doesn’t ignore the big picture. We, the audience, more or less know the big picture, the oppression of the Third Estate, the Bastille, and the Terror. This film, while never forgetting the big picture, isolates a story in the details, one just as much worth telling as the guillotine’s.

This is Laborde’s story. And, through her eyes, it is Marie-Antoinette and duchesse de Polignac’s. She loves the Queen in a perhaps Sapphic way. Marie-Antoinette loves Polignac in an almost certainly Sapphic way. But this isn’t the story of a love triangle. For most of the film Polignac goes unseen, and, when first seen, unheard. Like Laborde, we are lured into believing Polignac is a minor presence. Laborde loves Marie-Antoinette, and believes Marie-Antoinette loves her. She doesn’t presume the Queen holds any romantic feelings for her (but who could not hope), but she does believe the Queen has some special affection towards her. And she’s right, almost. The Queen loves her personal reader as she loves all things that bring her pleasure. A love born from self-centredness that reduces its objects to things for her use. I shan’t spoil anymore, but I shall say the ending provides the perfect capstone for the film’s exploration of love.

I shall comment on the theatrical poster, however. Should you glance at the poster and then watch the film, you may accuse it of dishonesty. ‘It is nothing so sweet or romantic as the cover implies,’ you might say, ‘and Polignac is at most an important side character.’ But look at the poster again, and do more than glance, and you’ll see, between the Queen and the duchesse, shadowed and excluded, our protagonist. Suddenly the poster seems an excellent companion to the film.

One complaint I have is regards Léa Seydoux’s acting. For most of the film she occupies her role well, but in her first scene with Marie-Antoinette I could not tell she loved her. Only in a later scene, when her love is exposited, did I realise this central aspect of the film. Admittedly, in that first scene the audience can read Seydoux’s face as affectionate. But they can equally well read it as a servant’s grin-and-bare-it expression. In such a foundational scene the audience should have no doubt about Laborde’s feelings for her Queen.

Familiarity with the Revolution aids a viewer’s appreciation of the film, but not because ignorance will obscure the plot. In case you’ve forgotten your French history, expositional dialogue will fill you in. This is justified, as the characters are learning about the Revolution as it progresses. No, it helps to know the big picture for thematic rather than plot reasons. Versailles borders on a fairy-tale kingdom, untouched by the world’s pain, separate and complete. Outside, Parisians storm the Bastille. The characters know this is momentous – the audience should know this is momentous – but Versailles seems untouched. So far from the world is Versailles that the storming of the Bastille can be kept secret for a time. We do not see the Revolution unveiled. We see, along with the characters, the dreadful omens of coming carnage, like the retracting tide just before a tsunami.

To this end, the music excels. The ominous music compounds the foreboding atmosphere of scenes. It manipulates the audience, but not clumsily so, occasionally playing at an almost subliminal softness.   

Visually, the film is stunning. Vibrant colours and shot construction create some truly beautiful images. Soft, red candlelight within the Palace, coupled with the many close-up shots of characters’ faces, warm the viewer with the characters’ intimacy. When the film wishes to convey dread, it does so in equally picturesque fashion. One night-time scene, on the eve of the Revolution, depicts a corridor so crowded and redly lit it resembles a purgatorial assembly. Occasionally, the film employs shaky-cam, perhaps to bring the viewer closer to the film’s world. So many constructed shots of characters wearing centuries-old dress could have pushed the audience too far from the film. A little shaky-cam subliminally guides viewers to see the film as transpiring events.

Farewell, My Queen is a moving film both thematically and visually. Its servant’s eye view of Versailles grants us an intimate look at the ancien regime’s final days. A limited view, but one that forebodes everything it does not show. 


  1. I did not watch the film, but there is much to explore about fictional historical drama. ‘History’ in academic sense is a reconstruction of the past (but it is not exactly the past), so it is to some extend fictional as well based on the evidence survived and the methods for critical analysis and the biases of the interpreter. Because of this, history textbook gives the impression that woman, LGBTQI and other ethnicity do not exist or at least do not contribute to the welfare of society… Even if they do admit in rare occasion, it has the effect of tokenism, which suggests such case is singular than universal. Visibility thus is an important issue for the minority. That is why Hidden Figures (upcoming 2017), where they focuses on African-American female scientists is so important to change such narrative. History is thus altered with different lenses (same with focalisation/perspective/point of view in fictions).
    On one hand, there is no need to have a fictional framing character to tell the story, but again, even if such people do not exist, we can imagine the possibility if they do (like nearly all the novel…), therefore, historical accuracy can alter our feeling towards historical drama about real existed historical figure, and we thus ask: is it accurate? Is it true? Then like we ask an adaptation from a book, is it faithful? Towards the book? Or towards the reality? Or… You may pick a page from the book and scream: That is not true at all! Women are not like that! Black People are not like that! Slavery is not like that! Therefore, paratext knowledge can alter your perception towards the book. That is why Miss Austen Regrets is so much better than Becoming Jane:
    Depending on the individual, we can forgive the alteration for dramatic effect to various degree. Period Drama A Little Chaos (2014) is a beautiful film… but I would like them to spend time and money on an actual existed historical women instead. Farewell, My Queen (2012) can tell a good story without our fictional protagonist. Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (a important female artist) was the royal portrait painter for Marie Antoinette. The portrait of Yolande de Polastron is actually painted by her (on the Wikipedia page). Then there is Rose Bertin who is Queen’s personal fashion designer who revolutionized the French fashion industry (that gradually women’s cloth began to become more colourful and luxury), and whose final mission for the Queen was the black morning garment that Marie worn when she died. There are other women who has drawn an extra paint in the history but only to be covered. Charlotte Corday is a brave assassinate who killed the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, and Olympe de Gouges was the feminist and very active during the revolution but was killed by the Jacobins (but of course, their story happens during the revolution).

  2. Charlotte Corday died at 17th July 1793 (aged 24), Marie Antoinette died at 16th October 1793 (aged 37), and Olympe de Gouges died at 3rd November 1793 (aged 45).
    I have a sympathy for the Queen and I have the pity for the populace (but I guess I have both feelings for both of them). The Queen is a greenhouse flower that she is a beautiful one, innocent one, and an artificial lily, that is, she is an aristocracy. But it is precise that the Palace of Versailles is so elegant and glorious that becomes the symbol that divides people and monarchy. They are protected too well by the system to know the consequence of luxury, that they are taught to spend, to do this and that, but never properly (especially for women) to rule a country. I pity any women who are killed for political changes. Mary, Queen of Scots… Lady Jane Grey… It is at these moments you would wish the existence of Heaven to receive their tortured soul (though I pity Mary less).
    There are also another good depiction from period drama about historical figure. Belle (2013) is about a unique African-British aristocracy, with good music and emotion (but the political aspect is not as strong as emotional aspect between two sisters). Then there is The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010) which is about Miss Lister’s life (who loves woman). Then I have not seen Mozart’s Sister (2010) which to some extend fictionalises Nannerl Mozart and Princess Louise of France (but their fate as women is to be pitied and their frustration, emotion and talent are explored).
    All in all, women’s stories are brilliant!

    1. I think you romanticise Marie-Antionette too much.