The Last Days of Marie Antoinette

07/11/2012 4:00 AM |

Farewell, My Queen
Directed by Benoît Jacquot

Staging the drama of the French court at Versailles in 1789 as a suspense movie is pretty gusty, but the gamble almost pays off in Benoît Jacquot’s new film, Farewell, My Queen. We know that heads will roll, of course, but this doesn’t make watching the machinations at the royal court, or the schadenfreude surrounding Marie Antoinette in her final days, any less delicious. Based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, the film shows the escalating terror after the storming of Bastille, as seen through the eyes of Sidonie, the Queen’s young new reader. Sidonie, played by Léa Seydoux (who seems perfectly suited for the part), is cool, haughty and absolutely devoted to Marie Antoinette. “Without the Queen,” she says, “I am nothing.” So are the embroiderers, the ladies in waiting, the chief librarian, and hundreds of court workers. All these roles are so exquisitely played they overshadow the rather tame romance at the film’s center, between the Queen and Gabrielle de Polignac, who is said to be the Queen’s favorite, and whose life she will try to save, by sacrificing Sidonie’s.

Jacquot is skilled in building psychological tension: the camera follows Sidonie closely, sometimes from the back, shaking, to the anxious soundtrack by Jacquot’s longtime collaborator, composer Bruno Coulais. The scene in which Sidonie must fetch Gabrielle, and finds her naked and drugged on opium, is sweetly sensual, as is the one in which she must strip naked, under the Queen’s tellingly lingering gaze. Jacquot treats the seductiveness of power literally, and Sidonie’s adolescent crush on the queen borders on carnal lust. It is a pity then that so little time is devoted to Sidonie’s arch-competitor when it comes to vying for the Queen’s affection: Gabrielle, played by Virginie Ledoyen, is ultimately no more than a stick figure, reduced to strutting her goods and sultrily lounging about. In contrast, all the cinematic rapture is showered on Sidonie. In one particularly evocative sequence, she startles, realizing she has fallen asleep in Versailles haunted courtyard: It is as if the royal court were a dream, and she a brief visitor in it, waking to a nightmare. In the most claustrophobic takes, the French nobles are shown wandering the palace dungeons in their nightgowns, like confused madmen. Sidonie herself, during her carriage ride when she barely evades the angry mob, is like a patient who comes to the brink of madness before she regains her senses.

If there is one central weakness in the film, besides the sketchy treatment of the Queen’s lover, it is Marie Antoinette herself. Her blue-blooded persona is so far-removed from us it is hard to watch her hoarding jewels, or writhing in passion, without grim satisfaction. Sofia Coppola’s answer to the audience’s dislike was to infantilize Marie, transforming her, in Marie Antoinette, into a fashion icon and lost party girl: she might have been dimwitted when it came to politics, economy or managing a domestic budget, but at least she had good taste in shoes. German actress Diane Kruger gives us a more grown-up queen, who may be incapable of being truly honest with anyone, least of all with herself, so well she’s perfected her mask. And while Kruger is strangely stiff at times, interpreting the royal title as a kind of straightjacket, she is more convincingly imperial, and in turn, more impenetrable, and icier. It might be that Marie still waits for a true incarnation, but Jacquot’s pushing her beyond likeability is refreshing, reminding us that not all royalty must be loved, or even admired.

Opens July 13