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.