A few weeks ago we were playing the doc The Queen of Versailles and now with Farewell, My Queen filling our screen, I can't help but make comparisons. The Siegels were building the largest house in America, and they dubbed the thing, without a shred of irony, Versailles. Of course the reference points towards the superciliousness of the project, but the Siegels chose this name seemingly without any understanding of how that historical opulence popped.
Farewell, My Queen takes place over three days of Versailles's fall, as observed by young Sidonie, Marie Antoinette's reader. Benoit Jacquot's film is based on the novel by Chantal Thomas, also the author of the study The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette. From all appearances, this films owes much to that earlier book of history. Here's a precis of that text:
Almost as soon as Marie Antoinette, archduchess of Austria, was brought to France as the bride of Louis XVI in 1771, she was smothered in images. In a monarchy increasingly under assault, the charm and horror of her feminine body and her political power as a foreign intruder turned Marie Antoinette into an alien other. Marie Antoinette's mythification, argues Thomas, must be interpreted as the misogynist demonization of women's power and authority in revolutionary France. In a series of pamphlets written from the 1770s until her death in 1793, Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a spendthrift, a libertine, an orgiastic lesbian, and a poisoner and infant murderess. In her analyses of these pamphlets ... Thomas reconstructs how the mounting hallucinatory and libelous discourse culminated in the inevitable destruction of what had become the counterrevolutionary symbol par excellence.
All of this is present in Farewell, My Queen, but is more implied than belaboured. The young Sidonie is our lens, and her naivete is ours. She is besotted with the queen at a time when that same woman is subject of national rancor. Early on in the film, discussing Marie Antoinette's love of tapestry with another attendant, Sidonie remarks, "That's when she forgets she's queen." The other attendant replies, with a creeping scorn, "I never forget who I am."
As a period piece, Farewell, My Queen spends a lot of time on the literal dirt and indecency of the time. Where most films of this genre revel in the grandeur of what we consider the past, Jacquot's falling Versailles is intimate and frenetic, and Diane Kruger's Marie is human and flawed and as fallible as anyone else in the court. The building revolution lives very much beyond the grounds of Versailles, but the grist of is tangible in the court itself. Farewell, My Queen is all about the intersection of how we view a person and who that person is, in ways both loving and hateful.