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“Farewell, My Queen,” (Les adieux à la reine) is director Benoit Jacquot’s lush depiction of the fall of the “the Chateau” at Versailles in July 1789. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette ruled France from Versailles, then the capital of France: Paris became the capital with the Revolution. The film is based on the book, first published in 2003, by French writer Chantal Thomas. It is in French, with clearly visible subtitles.
The audience sees people and events from the point of view of Sidonie Laborde, a young woman of the court who reads to the Queen at the Queen’s pleasure. Actress Léa Seydoux plays unmarried Sidonie as a somehow unfinished young woman with hints of unrevealed depths. The character develops a fascination for the Austrian queen portrayed by Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”), who slips back and forth between passionate and formal persuasively and even naturally. King Louis XVI is played movingly by Xavier Beauvois.
The feelings of the queen, however, are directed toward Madame Gabrielle de Polignac (played by Virginie Ledoyen), the wife of a noble at court. Rumors of a sexual liaison between the two women added to people’s disdain for the queen historically, and the film strongly implies a relationship with a sexual element.
As news of the public’s growing dissatisfaction and the storming of the Bastille in Paris reaches Versailles, the court slides into fear. The rituals of court begin to go by the wayside; people stay up all night in the Chateau, ignoring status and protocol as they try to learn the news and to acquire reassurance that this rebellion will pass.
When someone brings in a pamphlet that contains the list of “the 286 heads that have to fall,” horror and precognizant mourning sweep the night-lit Chateau.
The lighting, colors and sound are distinctive: yellows, dark reds; the darkness that encroaches in the night despite the lamps and candles; the sound of Sidonie breathing hard as she runs down the long, shiny, empty corridors to answer the summons of Marie Antoinette.
Sidonie has sources of information, such as the elderly court historiographer, Jacob Nicholas Moreau (Michel Robin); her friend Honorine (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a lady’s maid; the gondolier Paolo, and what she herself overhears. She collects information about what is happening in court and in Paris for both her own sake and that of her queen: She declares she would do anything for Marie Antoinette, but she fears also for the court at Versailles, for her friends and for herself.
The film will be most meaningful to those with background in European history; it is likely to arouse interest in others.Knowing, for example, the relevance of Director General of Finances Jacques Necker and his dismissal and reinstatement to the upheaval in the cities adds dimension to the film. To know that the eldest son – the Dauphin – of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had died at the age of seven just a month before the events of the film adds a further element. That King Louis XVI had enacted a number of major reforms and tried to enact more, in the spirit of the Enlightenment with its thinkers such as Voltaire, makes one think harder about why the Revolution occurred at that time.
Some viewers will go to see this seductive and subtly powerful film knowing the history it magnifies and will be moved by it; they may also relate it to the situation of present-day America. Others, who will miss that significance, are likely to be touched more by the atmosphere of the film and the immediacy of the events and characters portrayed. 100 minutes