This December, we get to see a big-screen adaptation of Les Miserables. The tale of war, poverty, and revolution in France will be presented by such stars as Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and Helena Bonham Carter, among many others. Last but not least, the film will be helmed by Tom Hooper, who stole two Oscars from David Fincher back in 2011. With so much heat behind it, the film is sure to sweep Farewell, My Queen completely under the rug when the next awards season rolls around. And what a damn shame that'll be.
The queen of the title is Marie Antoinette, played here by Diane Kruger. The film takes place near the start of the French Revolution, just as Bastille was overtaken in July of 1789. But the film doesn't follow Antoinette herself. Instead, our protagonist is Sidonie Laborde, the queen's hired storyteller. She's played by the lovely Lea Seydoux, whose career has steadily been picking up steam after minor roles in Inglourious Basterds, Midnight in Paris, and Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol.
(Side note: So far as I can tell, Sidonie Laborde was an invention of Chantal Thomas, the French historian who wrote the novel this movie was based on. That said, this fictional character is woven into historical fact in such a way that -- so far as I can tell -- suspending disbelief should be a simple matter).
What makes Sidonie such a wonderful protagonist is that even though she's closely tied to the queen and the royal attendants, she's still very much a peasant. This means that we can see how the revolution affects everyone in Versailles, bourgeoisie and proletariat alike, through the eyes of this one single character. With precious few exceptions, the narrative never leaves her perspective. Sidonie hears the news from war-torn Paris as we do, seeking out whatever reports and rumors she can find on our behalf. This also serves to show us a glimpse of 18th-century French society firsthand, with its heavy emphasis on gossip, saving face, and trading favors.
With all of that said, Sidonie is more than just an audience surrogate and she does have a story of her own to tell. After all, the primary reason why she's so eager to learn about current events is because she's so worried about the queen. The cause of her attachment to the queen is never explicitly stated, though we can guess at some possibilities. For one thing, Sidonie has no past that she's willing to disclose. As such, Sidonie probably comes from no family of importance or wealth, and we know for a fact that she's dirt-poor even with her status as the queen's pet storyteller. Take that away and she would have precisely nothing.
Alternatively, it's heavily implied -- though never outright stated -- that Sidonie may be in love with Marie Antoinette. The attraction might even be sexual in nature, though if it is, Sidonie would obviously be smart enough never to tell a soul. What adds to the intrigue is that we're never quite sure if the affection is requited. Marie obviously cares a great deal for her little storyteller, but then, Marie's cares tend to change by the second.
There's also Gabrielle de Polastron to consider (played by Virginie Ledoyen). She was one of the queen's most trusted friends, and the movie portrays their relationship as borderline Sapphic. The result is a very unstable love triangle, in which it's not immediately clear just how much affection and/or jealousy is involved, much less how it's all going to end. The characters are all complex enough to make the storyline work, though it certainly helps that all of the actresses involved are so powerful, so charismatic, and (it must be said) so beautiful that they always make the proceedings interesting to watch.
To sum up, this is an intimate story that's told against an epic backdrop. Through Sidonie's observations and connections among people of all walks of life in Versailles, we get to see personal reactions to the ongoing revolution without ever losing touch of the larger stakes in play. As a direct result, the film gets to show a compelling love triangle and a portrait of a country sliding into anarchy, juggling both storylines with uncommon skill.
Furthermore, due to Sidonie's unique placement in between the social strata, the film also gets to make some statements about those with power, those without power, and how much the two need each other. This theme is expressed in some very interesting ways, both subtle (the recurring motif of mosquitoes, swamps, rats, etc.) and overt (that wonderful ending).
Something else that's interesting about this movie is its cast. It's rather peculiar that in such a patriarchal time as the late 1700s, the characters in this movie are overwhelmingly female. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising, given that this is a movie about Marie Antoinette and of course her servants would be exclusively female. Personally, however, I choose to think of this as an implicit statement about women's place in history. Men might have gotten all the press back in those days, but women were always behind the scenes in every level of society, doing the work men couldn't be bothered to do so everything could keep on running.
Moving on to the main cast, I found myself quite taken by Diane Kruger in her performance as Marie Antoinette. Kruger plays the queen as a woman who's very charming, generous toward her servants, and a lot of fun to be around, even if she's capricious to the point of short-term memory loss. She's a woman who wants to be loved and she wants to be comfortable at all times, yet she's clearly uneasy with holding any kind of actual power. All of these traits, I might add, are shared by her husband (King Louis XVI, played by Xavier Beauvois).
From our very introduction to the character, it's obvious that Marie (and Louie, for that matter) should never have been allowed to govern in the first place. Marie should've been a trophy wife, spending her husband's money on frivolities and shows of wealth, not the Queen of France. Over the course of this film, we see people going hungry, looters everywhere, citizens committing suicide, yet the queen keeps asking for that sampler of a dahlia she ordered yesterday.
Naturally, this puts Sidonie in yet another very difficult position. She steadfastly refuses to renounce her beloved queen, despite the fact that defecting looks like an increasingly good idea. The revolution is underway and going strong, after all, so why fight the tide? Additionally, why defend those in power when they've done such a crappy job of leading? They can't even get their plans straight on where to flee and how to escape, for Christ's sake. Other members of Marie's own staff are seen stealing from their queen, but it's hard to blame them: The money is needed to feed the starving and it's all going up in smoke anyway.
Lea Seydoux is in almost every shot of this movie, so it's a good thing she's so amazing to watch. Even if her motivations aren't always clear, Seydoux plays her role with such intelligence, determination, and sex appeal that she always lights up the screen. Of course, it also helps that she, Kruger, and Virginie Ledoyan work off each other beautifully.
That said, not every character is a winner. We spend a couple of scenes with Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), a character who contributes pretty much nothing to the plot. He hits on Sidonie for a while, they start making out, she leaves him when the queen starts calling, that's it. As far as I can tell, he's only there to reinforce the homosexual overtones and Sidonie's loyalty to her queen, but both of those points were made clear enough already.
There's also the cinematography and the editing, which are rather hit-and-miss. Most of the film is shot with a hand-held camera, though there's mercifully no shaky-cam involved. Sometimes, the approach leads to a much more immersive and powerful vision of a once-great city upending itself. Other times, it gets annoying to watch the camera pan constantly between characters, back and forth, back and forth.
But any points I take away for the occasional handheld shot gone awry, I have to give back a dozen times over for the production design. Not only are the sets wonderful, but the costumes are phenomenal. It bears repeating that because the cast of this movie is made pretty much entirely of women, there are a lot of very intricate dresses on display. It also means some detailed makeup, some outrageous wigs, and a whole lotta cleavage. Honest to God, Lea Seydoux's chest gets almost as much screen time as her face does.
Though the sexual overtones will be a draw for some, Farewell, My Queen is most notable for the way that it balances an intimate romance with an epic revolution. It's astounding how this movie pits the wealthy against the poor, doing so in a way that we can see the conflict so clearly from both sides of the equation. A huge part of that is thanks to Lea Seydoux, who gracefully navigates our protagonist through every social layer of Versailles. Props are also due to Diane Kruger, for her wonderful performance as Marie Antoinette, and to the production designers who created such an immersive and vivid facsimile of Versailles.
If you have the chance to see this movie, I HIGHLY recommend it.