As the French Revolution starts to take shape many miles from the royal palace’s exquisitely manicured borders, a pamphlet quietly circulates among the aristocrats and servants at Versailles: 238 people the insurgents would like to guillotine, with the queen, Marie Antoinette, at the top of the list. This is how history comes to its cloistered occupants—not through revolutionaries crashing the gates, but through rumors, threats, and distant news reports from the front lines. Though a more conventional costume piece than Sofia Coppola’s undervalued Marie Antoinette, Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen takes a similar tack of a queen walled in by luxury and often unable to comprehend the historical forces that will lead to her downfall. The main difference is that Jacquot goes one step further by telling the story from the perspective of an attendant whose infatuation with Antoinette is blinding enough on its own.
Continuing Jacquot’s career-long fascination with women—even Sade, his ostensible biopic of the Marquis de Sade, puts equal emphasis on a virginal teenager the Marquis deflowers—Farewell, My Queen follows the invented character of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a servant whose sole task is to read to the queen. There’s an intimacy to their sessions that’s seductive to Seydoux, but the queen herself is infatuated with Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), a lovely creature depicted here as a friend with benefits. As news of the revolt starts to circulate, it leads to mass defections, broken alliances, and even a few suicides at Versailles, but Seydoux’s faithfulness never wavers, even though it isn’t reciprocated.
Jacquot addresses these passions with a cool reserve that pays off in the final minutes, when the reality of the collapse bears down on the characters and their true natures are exposed. Up to that point, Farewell, My Queen is a simple, mildly eroticized, and beautifully appointed costume drama in the tradition of movies like The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis, sticking to the fixed perspectives of aristocrats (and their servants) who can’t hear the wolves at the door. Working from Chantal Thomas’ novel, Jacquot doesn’t entirely scrape the gloss off this love triangle, which plays neither as a florid bodice-ripper nor as emotionally complex as it might have been. It stays on the surface, but at least that surface is gorgeous.