Why is it so hard to make a good movie about Marie Antoinette? True, there is a 1938 Norma Shearer film based on the French queen that I have yet to see, but have heard good things. For the most part, though, the movies about the famous historical figure, namely Sofia Coppola's 2006 version, are self-indulgent slogs.
"Farewell, My Queen" is not nearly as self-obsessed or dull as Coppola's take. That being said, the film still falls into several of the same traps, namely focusing more on the lavish, lively settings and cinematography than the characters inhabiting them. It's certainly a very pretty movie, but that's about it.
The film starts as the reign of France's Louis XVI nears its dramatic end. Versailles, including the poor, loyal workers and maids as well as the rich aristocrats, attempts to feign normalcy while the poor commoners outside become more viciously unsatisfied with their leaders. After the off-screen storming of the Bastille, however, the entire palace is thrown off-kilter as the news and the ensuing panic spreads.
Caught in the middle of the chaos is Sidonie (Léa Seydoux, the icy, villainous blonde from "MI:4"), Marie Antoinette's personal reader. While the other maids flee, Sidonie stays out of loyalty, as well as her romantic feelings toward the queen. Unfortunately, the unpredictable Marie Antoinette ("Inglourious Basterds"' Diane Kruger) is distracted with preserving her own safety, as well as the safety of her not-so-secret lover, Gabrielle de Polastron, the duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).
Director Benoît Jacquot fills every frame of "Farewell, My Queen" with incredible detail. Of course, the shots involving the fabulous luxuries and wealth of Versailles are lusciously filmed, but even sequences taking place in the workers' quarters are beautiful. The dark, candle-lit room of Louis XVI's historian and Sidonie's wise old friend (Michel Robin) provide some of the film's most sumptuous moments.
Not every image is filled with beauty, however. In fact, some of the earlier sequences do an elegant job of showing the contrast between the wildly wealthy and tragically poor, and the poverty slowly seeping into Versailles. A shot near the beginning moves from a mass of brown, dirty commoners over to a proud band of marching soldiers. A pleasant boat ride is briefly interrupted by a dead rat floating in the water.
Jacquot camera movements bring a surprisingly fresh feel to the proceedings. The camera moves freely, capturing the busy details and nervous interactions beginning to overtake the palace. A few times, his techniques – a snappy zoom on another rat, for instance – seem out of place and overly dramatic, but for the most part, they give the period drama an invigorating modern vibe.
Unfortunately, that's where "Farewell, My Queen"'s freshness and excitement end. The melodramatic story doesn't go anywhere particularly fast, and none of the characters really stand out. The world they incorporate is fascinating; they are not. This isn't the actors' fault, as Seydoux is an intriguing on-screen presence, and Kruger finds some nice depth in the film's juiciest role, erratically flipping between kind and compassionate to viciously off-kilter.
It may not have been in the movie's best interest to tell its story through Sidonie's perspective. The character and the performance are so emotionally bottled up that it spreads to the rest of the film, making the French drama come off cold and drab. Even after a turn of events near the end, the potential tension barely simmers due to the script's emotionally chilliness. It doesn't help that a few seconds after its climax, "Farewell, My Queen" plows into an unsatisfying ending narration.
Cinema is a visual medium, so "Farewell, My Queen" merits a mild recommendation thanks to its lush direction and atmosphere. But even so, it's hard to escape the sense that it's just as cold and unfeeling as the infamous monarch at its center.
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