“Farewell, My Queen” opens today at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Years ago, when I began taking undergraduate classes at the University of California, San Diego, I faced a choice: Study history, or study literature. I was drawn in both directions. At the end of my first quarter, I had scored an A in my lit class, a C in history. And just like that, my career as a historian was over.
The problem: boredom. The history that interests me involves people and their stories: What manipulates them, moves them, intrigues them, and in what ways do their experiences change them and the world in which they live. And how does all of that compare with my own life? The history they taught at UCSD was more about trade patterns, economic philosophy and statistical analysis. Boring. Yeah, yeah, important. I know. Still, boring.
I thought of all that while watching French filmmaker Benoit Jacquot’s movie exploration of the French Revolution, “Farewell, My Queen,” which is set during a few days just before and after the July 14, 1789, storming of the Parisian prison, The Bastille.
Anyone who has a basic understanding of France knows the principal figures of that era: King Louis 16th and his Austrian-born wife Marie Antoinette. Familiar, too, should be the popular uprising, caused by social inequality, unremitting poverty and the growing resentment of autocratic authority – along with problematic trade patterns, economics and statistics, of course – that became the Revolution.
So the larger story serves as backdrop to “Farewell, My Queen,” and it’s not something director Jacquot spends a lot of time explaining. Instead, he immerses us in the day-to-day palace life at Versailles. We walk along the candle-lit hallways, sail in the faux-Italian canals, sleep in mosquito-filled garrets, enter the luxurious boudoir of the Queen, listen in as she is indulged in her every whim, and slowly – always from the outside but with ever-growing insider intimacy – learn what we need to know about this soon-to-end world.
The conceit that Jacquot uses involves a young woman, Sidonie, played by Lea Seydoux from “Midnight in Paris,” who serves as the queen’s reader. Jacquot reveals everything through her eyes: Besides our actually witnessing the wide range of social classes, from royals to rags, we begin to feel the growing sense of threat from outside the palace, posed by those unseen ragged mobs.
Yet on a personal level, we also feel the longing that eats at Sidonie – a longing for a better life, the kind that comes so easily to someone such as the Duchess of Polignac (played by Virginie Ledoyen), whom the queen favors. Irony attends the queen’s infatuation with the duchess, whatever its basis, because that affection is used by the king’s enemies to fan revolutionary hate. A further irony pairs the duchess and the servant girl in a way that provides a final, melancholy ending to Jacquot’s film.
Much of “Farewell, My Queen,” though, is straightforward. Thanks to Seydoux’s subtle performance as Sidonie and Diane Kruger’s touching attempts to create sympathy for the doomed queen, the film works well as a study of character. But by immersing us totally into the daily regimen of 18th-century France, Jacquot does so much more: He manages to bring the past to actual life.
And nothing is boring about that.