Reviewed by Rhea Cinna
Queen Marie Antoinette of France is probably one of the most widely represented and misrepresented figures in post-1789 art. It’s no surprise that her various impersonations often collide with each other, either portraying her as a guileless child, swept away by tides more powerful than herself or as a heartless tyrant, more interested in a decadent lifestyle than in the hunger of her people. It’s fair to say that considering the events of the time, an image of the real Marie Antoinette will most likely escape us forever.
That being said, the Marie Antoinette in Farewell, My Queen has a surprising believability, in no small measure by grace of the story-telling device, which focuses more on the experiences of the main character, one of the queen’s readers (played by Lea Seydoux), and only through her eyes, on the queen. As such, Marie Antoinette gains the freedom to be fragile, capricious, charming, cruel, yet always beloved, without the stiffness that comes with shouldering the film as the main character. The servant’s affection and admiration endure even though Marie Antoinette’s actions are not always worthy of them. The director does well in capturing the moments before and after the fall of the Bastille, as it affects the limited number of people living in the micro-cosmos of Versailles. We see nothing of the queen’s starving people and even court intrigue is perceived tangentially rather than from the center of any conflict.
Benoit Jaquot had previously made a film set on the background of the French Revolution, based on events from the life of the Marquis de Sade — one of the few figures who rivaled Marie Antoinette in notoriety in those times, and ever since. In both films, the characters created by Jaquot are not necessarily true to the originals, but they are certainly appealing and intriguing. Unfortunately, similarly to Jaquot’s Sade, it feels as if Farewell, My Queen never fully gets past the level of teasing, of taunting, with brief and scattered moments of true delivery. As the film progresses into its climactic moments, one can’t help wondering what it would have been like had the viewer been allowed even just a millimeter further into the characters’ lives, had the film dared just a little more.
The film’s set-up is phenomenal, but the maturity that would have created a lasting impact is never quite reached. The script relies heavily on the belief that the audience is well aware of the historical events and the identities of the characters and settles for giving key figures a few emblematic lines, almost forcing the film into becoming a collection of snapshots. This partially works in creating the vivid impression that the events are seen through the main character’s eyes. However, without being provided with the context said character is supposedly aware of, the use of such a device, no matter how craftily employed, falls short of the initial intention.
Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette shows great acting flair, portraying a multi-facetted, endearingly vulnerable queen. It is indeed her character that leaves the most lasting impression, perfectly complimenting Lea Seydoux’s powerful yet subdued interpretation of the main character. The film truly shines during the scenes Seydoux and Kruger share together, even though Marie Antoinette’s appearances on screen aren’t as frequent as one might expect. Virginie Ledoyen as the Duchess of Polignac falls flat (perhaps intentionally so, considering the storyteller’s perspective), never revealing her appeal, although the queen’s fascination is palpable. Jaquot’s Marie Antoinette is misguided in a way different from many of her past incarnations, but perhaps her bits of selfishness and inadvertent cruelty bring her closer to what the queen may have been like in truth. Since her selfishness comes from love, it becomes more relatable and perhaps understandable, but no less hurtful or easier to forgive.
Overall, despite the criticism, Farewell, My Queen is enjoyable and entertaining, especially for lovers of period films and lavish sets. The performances are, for most part, engaging and the story presented from a different perspective than what one usually expects in a film of its genre can be pleasantly surprising at times.
Rhea Cinna is film critic for The Missing Slate.