Farewell, My Queen, a dramatized account of the relationship between Marie Antoinette and her personal reader in 1789 Paris, so frequently comes within a hair’s breadth of being a salacious lesbian melodrama that one wonders why director/co-writer Benoît Jacquot didn’t go all out and actually make it that way. Historical accuracy notwithstanding, at least then audiences would know how to respond to it; it would never once feel as if Jacquot was holding back when he should have been pushing the envelope. When it doesn’t tease us with longing stares, burning confidences, impassioned tears, and even an instance or two of full-frontal voluptuousness, it drags us, at times kicking and screaming, through a backstage labyrinth of wild rumor, juicy gossip, and dangerous political tidings, the French Revolution inching ever closer to the sheltered world of Versailles.
Adapted from the novel by Chantal Thomas, the film is told from the point of view of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a Lady in Waiting for Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), who assigns her to read passages from her favorite stories, mostly plays. Sidonie’s unwavering loyalty to her Queen, we gradually see, masks a deeper, somewhat unsettling erotic fixation; she takes full advantage of every opportunity with Marie Antoinette to gain special favor, perhaps even win her love. True enough, the Queen does confide in Sidonie on several occasions, sometimes quite candidly and emotionally. However, it’s obvious that her feelings for Sidonie are not romantic. The real object of her affection is the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), who in real life was indeed Marie Antoinette’s closest friend and was actually accused of being her lesbian lover. Whether or not this was actually the case, no one really knows. I suspect, however, that the film’s treatment of it has more to do with sensationalism than with considering possibilities.
The film effectively shows that two different worlds existed within the walls of Versailles. One is bright and opulent, a gaudy display of bulky gowns, marble floors, hand-carved crown molding, sparkling crystal, and powder-white faces and curly wigs. The other is shadowy and dank, an inhospitable maze of cold stone passageways lit by torches, filthy servants’ quarters, crowded dining halls, and curved block staircases. It’s in this latter world that Sidonie hears all the murmuring, not just of the Queen’s relationship with Gabrielle de Polignac but also of the peasants who are on the verge of revolt. Initially, Sidonie refuses to listen. But then news of the Bastille being taken quickly spreads. Both the nobles and the servants wait anxiously as King Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois) tries to calm the members of the Third Estate with a political speech, one he gives outside Versailles’ supposedly safe gates.
Even with this development, Sidonie is only concerned about her beloved Queen, whose reputation is slowly but surely being tarnished. Gradually, she sees just how deep her love for Gabrielle runs. It comes to a head not long after Louis refuses to leave Versailles, which effectively destroys any hope that he and Marie Antoinette will get out alive; during a tearful moment between them, the Queen begs Gabrielle to leave and never return, all the while secretly hoping that she will refuse and stay by her side until the very end. The decision she ultimately makes is not what matters. What really matters are the consequences of that decision. They matter because they involve Sidonie, albeit without her initially knowing it. The final scene with Marie Antoinette involves Sidonie stripping down to nothing and staring at her Queen with a mixture of desperate longing and tremendous sadness.
The scene immediately following this arguably depicts Sidonie slipping into madness, the Queen’s request allowing her to indulge in a fantasy despite the fact that her very life has been put on the line. Was this done against her will? If it were any other queen, the answer would be yes. But because it’s Marie Antoinette, it’s more a matter of love than of duty. In that moment, brief though it may be, Sidonie is allowed to believe she is the Queen’s favorite, and she milks it for all its worth. Only through a voiceover narration do we come to realize just how empty Sidonie is without Marie Antoinette. It isn’t so much that she no longer has the Queen to admire; it’s more a matter of life’s purpose and personal identity, because without the Queen, Sidonie has nothing and truly is nothing.
All of this is handled about as competently as one might expect, and it would be a bald-faced lie to say that the performances aren’t good. Nevertheless, considering the scandalous implications of the material, it’s a mystery to me why Jacquot couldn’t bring himself to just go ahead and make a gay erotica, a genre the plot dances around as if it were a touchy subject. I grant you that this approach would have necessitated an almost total removal of anything even remotely historical, but then again, most audiences don’t go to movies for history lessons. Lord knows if I were genuinely interested in the French Revolution, I’d actually bother to read a book on the subject. Farewell, My Queen is a valiant effort – a fine cast, superb costumes, intricate sets, and beautiful art direction are among its accomplishments – but it plays like an idea that wasn’t given the chance to come to fruition. It should have been so much more than it was allowed to be.