Benoît Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen” tells a familiar story–the downfall of Marie Antoinette at the beginning of the French Revolution–but it does so from a perspective through which the events are rarely considered: that of a servant within Versailles. Adapted from a novel by the French historian Chantal Thomas, the film would function splendidly on a “Rashomon”-like triple-bill with Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” and hopefully a future production about what it was like to live outside the gates of Versailles during the royal fall.
Director Jacquot realizes that history can look extremely different depending on the person recounting it, and the character he chooses is so unique and well-developed that “Farewell, My Queen” thankfully defies being a rudimentary night-and-day contrast to the usual telling of this tale (the problematic fate of Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which looked at World War II from the Japanese perspective). Sidonie, played by a luminous Léa Seydoux (“Midnight in Paris”), is a reader to the Queen (Diane Kruger), which is to say that she reads aloud whatever novel or play Marie Antoinette would like to hear as if a child receiving bedtime stories.
Sidone, like most commoners, is fascinated with royalty — which here doesn’t look much different from present-day celebrity, plus slightly more lavish clothing. This fascination lies at the core of the film; “Farewell, My Queen” is less about depicting history accurately than it is about observing the way that history is perceived by the people witnessing it. For instance, from Sidonie’s point-of-view, there is little doubt that Marie Antoinette had a lesbian love affair with the noblewoman Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) — a possibility not commonly entertained by historians.
Even more interesting are the details that Sidonie sees, but does not understand. Sidonie’s fixation with and admiration for royalty does not allow her to question the Queen’s mental state (nor would she have had the knowledge to do so at this point in history), but Diane Kruger’s performance entertains the possibility that Marie Antoinette had lost her mind by the time the Bastille fell. Kruger offers a manic, anxious portrayal of the infamous royal, which oftentimes recalls Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe in “My Week with Marilyn” — a comparison that makes sense given the two figures’ similar cultural statuses in their respective eras.
As the lead, Léa Seydoux nails the challenge of becoming both a conduit for revealing an historical perspective and a living, breathing character unto her own. This balance is especially complex because the viewer must experience all of Sidone’s perceptions, but because this is not a movie specifically about Sidonie–it’s more about the larger context–Seydoux must also not allow them to know every little thing Sidonie thinks, as it would pose a distraction. That Seydoux accomplishes this dynamic without it ever feeling as though she is deliberately withholding anything from the audience represents a true feat of performance.
In keeping with Sidone’s perspective, Jacquot depicts Versailles as the beautiful but hardly paradisiacal place to live that it was, which is especially impressive given he shot a good portion of the film at the actual palace, which has obviously been cleaned up in the centuries since. Jacquot hones in on the dead rats floating in the fountains outside, the mosquitos buzzing in the humid chambers, and other details that make “Farewell, My Queen” feel more authentic than any prior telling of this story, even though it otherwise does not attempt definitive historical accuracy.
Just as the film may not be an entirely accurate depiction of the early French Revolution, neither is it intended to be a deconstruction of its considerably different predecessors. Instead, Jacquot simply tries to further the viewer’s understanding of crusty historical events by approaching them from a fresh angle. Thanks to the keen adapted screenplay, which Jacquot co-wrote with Gilles Taurand, and the juicy performances from Seydoux and Kruger, he is able to successfully execute this attempt. And for any viewer who doesn’t go into anaphylaxis at the mere sight of subtitles or period decor, “Farewell, My Queen” should prove pretty damn entertaining, too.