One of the most interesting approaches to telling the story of the life and times of a famous person is telling that story through the eyes of an unknown. Rather than the traditional and often stodgy birth-to-death autobiographical approach, this second-hand perspective has the potential to be far more insightful. Firstly it allows the viewer to vicariously share the protagonist’s experience in encountering fame, and secondly, it provides the filmmaker with an opportunity to reflect the core characteristics of the famous person during a fixed moment in their life. It is a technique that recent films such as Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008) and My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis, 2011) used extremely well, using factual liberties to create an impression of the subject matter with far more depth and intrigue than the standard biopic that is more interested it checking off all the important moments over a whole life time.
Similar to Me and Orson Welles and My Week with Marilyn, Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (based on a 2002 novel by Chantal Thomas) presents the ‘celebrity’ at the centre of the narrative through the eyes of ‘ordinary’ person, in this case a fictitious servant named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux). And the celebrity that the audience discovers through the eyes of Sidonie is Marie Antoinette. As Sophia Coppola suggested in her uneven yet fascinating 2006 film Marie Antoinette, the French queen was something of a pop-culture figure, endlessly scrutinised in life and in death, and torn between her true self and her public persona. In Farewell, My Queen, which is set during the start of the French Revolution during July 1789, Marie is played by Diane Kruger who delivers a good performance when she actually appears on screen. Her absence from the majority of the first half of the film is part of the overall problem that there seems to be two different films struggling to be seen in Farewell, My Queen resulting in a final product that never quite feels unified.
Marie’s fleeting appearance at the start of the film initially suggests that the focus is not on her, but on the dynamics of the court and servants living at the Palace of Versailles. An early pan of a group of desperate peasants to the ornate gates of the palace establishes the disconnect that the palace inhabitants had to the rest of the country. The film then follows Sidonie as she goes to read for Marie and plays the part of a dutiful friend, further establishing the disconnect of the aristocracy who mistake servitude for companionship. Then for a long stretch the film follows Sidonie through court life, representing its complex hierarchy and the growing unease about the fragments of revolutionary news being received from outside the palace gates.
While the upstairs/downstairs dynamic is a theme frequently explored in English texts, it is rarely depicted in such detail as it is in Farewell, My Queen. Not only is there a marked division between the members of the court and the servants, but there is a further system of status that exists within the broader groups. Different members of the court have a higher social standing than others, and the servants are also guided by rank. Characters will be commanding or chastising somebody in one moment, and in another will be bowing their heads in subservience. It is a complex social system that Jacquot’s offers as more an observation on tribal behaviour than anything else, and the results are mostly fascinating.
Even more fascinating is how Jacquot portrays the rising panic and paranoia of the court as the news about the revolution starts to spread. Along with the sometimes Robert Altmanesque overlapping dialogue, the constantly moving camera captures Sidonie’s observant curiosity and increasingly urgent desire to find out what is happening outside of the palace. When marching through the palace upon hearing about the storming of the Bastille, the camera is placed close to Sidonie to emphasise her determined footsteps and rising anxiety. The edits are sudden and quick as if time was folding in on itself upon hearing such alarming news.
In a later scene – and the film’s stylistic moment of triumph – all the members of the court and their servants move through the residential halls of the palace trying to determine what they should do. Social order is breaking down, people are gripped by uncertainty and the whole moment is like a dream. The camera is suitably dreamlike, floating through the scene and accompanied by the films unconventional and disarming music score. The effect is not unlike Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), which while a different type of film in many ways, contained similar themes about being lost in history and the passing of time where all things must come to an end.
While very effectively setting itself up as a film about court life during Marie Antoinette’s rule through the eyes of one servant, the film then shifts gear to become an unrequited love triangle narrative with Marie harbouring a secret love for Gabrielle de Polastron (Virginie Ledoyen) and Sidonie for Marie. By reintroducing Marie so late and giving Gabrielle so little to do until this stage, it is difficult to be swept away by the intended drama. A moment when Marie and Gabrielle publicly embrace to suggest considerable intimacy is presented as having monumental significance. While the audience can appreciate such a moment, it is difficult to really feel the desired intensity of the moment since the relationship between Marie and Gabrielle had been mentioned, but never shown.
Sidonie remains the constant throughout Farewell, My Queen, but she moves from being the inquisitive observer to a participant in a supposedly forbidden love affair. It feels like two different films competing for dominance, which just results in them both being weakened. This is a shame as so much of the film works, especially the combination of production design, cinematography and music to convey the shifting moods of the court while facing the growing crisis. Nevertheless, there are many examples of innovative and bold filmmaking in Farewell, My Queen, which aspires to more than biopics that simply deliver historical re-enactments. While it does not hang together as a whole, Farewell, My Queen is still an interesting and engaging film that should be overall commended for what it does achieve. Through the eyes of Sidonie a compelling impression of an extinct society is delivered, and while the presence of Marie Antoinette in the story is frustrating held back until it is too late, she still emerges as a curious blend of contradictions – kind, indifferent, calculating and somebody to love.