Thursday, July 26, 2012

Farewell My Queen (orig. Les adieux à la reine) [2012]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Farewell My Queen (orig. Les adieux à la reine) directed and screenplay cowritten by Benoît Jacquot along with Gilles Taurand based on the novel by Chantal Thomas) is a French film (subtitled) about the French queen Marie Antoinette [IMDb], wife of Louis XVI [IMDb], both of whom along with their son were eventually beheaded during the French Revolution.

I found the film interesting first and foremost because it was FRENCH.  During the course of my lifetime, I've read and seen much about the period of the French Revolution.  However it occurred to me as I read about the arrival of this film to Chicago this week that almost none of what I had read or seen actually came from France.  Instead most of what I had read/seen of the time came from either England (one thinks most famously of Charles Dickens' novel ATale of Two Cities [wiki][IMDb]) or from the United States (various documentaries and so forth).  So I could not help but find the prospect of seeing a film about the period which actually came from France to be interesting.

Second, I found myself in accord with the general thrust of the film, which continues a recent movement to re-evaluate the life and person of Marie Antoinette [IMDb] (one thinks also here of Sofia Coppola's recent film Marie Antoinette [2006] staring Kirsten Dunst in the title role).  In previous times, Marie Antoinette [IMDb] had been portrayed as, in effect, "the true villain" precipitating the French Revolution, never mind that she had been an Austrian Hapsburg Princess (the youngest daughter of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa [IMDb]) who simply married into the doomed French Monarchy and its court at Versailles while her husband, Louis XVI [IMDb] was largely incompetent both as a husband and as a monarch.

The recent movement to partially rehabilitate her has noted above all her youth.  She was a TEENAGER after all, 14 when she was sent to from her home in Vienna to Versailles to marry the 15 year old Louis Auguste, then "Daufin (heir to the throne) of France" and only 19 when he became King (at 20).  And she was still only 34 when the Bastille was stormed and still only 38 when the guillotine sliced off her head. 
She was no Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel of our day who were both already in their 50s when they reached power (admittedly by election).  And yes, while Marie Antoinette's mother Maria Theresa became Empress of Austria at 23, that may actually prove the point:  Maria Theresa had been the oldest daughter in her court with no brothers and thus had been raised to become Empress of Austria.  Marie Antoinette in contrast was Maria Theresa's youngest daughter, 'the baby' as it were, and was raised basically "to enjoy life" and to be married off at some point in hopes of securing a beneficial alliance for her Mother's kingdom. 

One suspects that more than a few contemporary teenagers / 20-somethings could "bring down a Monarchy or two" simply by rolling their eyes and saying the dreaded words "this is stupid" when faced with, well, the stultifying stupidity of life at a royal court. Indeed, the Court at Versailles kept itself afloat and 'relevant' through the social control of Gossip and, well ... Torture at the hands of "the King's men" when additional persuasion was needed.   (Indeed, one _could_ think of the life portrayed in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette [2006] or this current film Farewell My Queen by Benoît Jacquot as that of Gossip Girl [2007] played out in "18th century aristocratic period clothes" and, of course, _played out for real_ ...

Farewell My Queen takes the point of view of one of Marie Antoinette servants, a fictional Sidonie Laborde (played by Léa Seydoux).  Marie Antoinette [IMDb] herself is played by the German-born actress Diane Kruger.  The entire film takes place in the Court at Versailles in the days immediately following the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789 (which today is remembered as Bastille Day, marking the beginning of the French Revolution).   The various people, including Marie Antoinette, begin to appreciate that the storming of the Bastille was going to be a memorable day in their lives (perhaps in the same way as anyone who lived in Southern California would find the Los Angeles Riots that followed the Rodney King Trial to have been "memorable"), but it wasn't entirely clear yet how bad (for them) the situation really was going to become.  News, afterall, filtered through the Court largely by means of Gossip.

In the midst of the confusion existing at the Court during those tumultuous days was Sidonie, who served Marie Antoinette [IMDb].  Marie Antoinette, by then 34, but living in a milieu of perpetual adolescence/young adulthood, was portrayed to be something of the scatter-brain that she's been remembered in history, asking Sidonie to fetch her everything from what passed for "fashion magazines" at the time (when she felt okay) to "maps" to plot escape back to "Metz" on the Border with Austria (when she felt things were _not_ going okay).

Sidonie herself did not seem to know what to make of the Bastille riots or their future significance.  However, even though one could feel Sidonie wanting to roll her eyes on occasion over the frivolity of "Life at Court" and over the frivolity of her Mistress, one also got the sense that she did like Marie Antoinette.  And this was the case even if Marie Antoinette was her Boss, indeed her Queen, and as her Boss/Queen she did treat her at times as the servant that Sidonie was to her. 

So the story presented is, in fact, complex.  There is the formal relationship between the two protagonists in the story of Queen and servant.  But also because of being of similar age (Sidonie was, in fact, even younger than Marie Antoinette) there was also a relationship of relative "sisterhood" of trying to make sense of life in a Court that often didn't make much sense.

Added to the story was Marie Antoinette's desire to protect a particular young woman (of noble birth but of lower rank) Gabrielle de Polignac [IMDb] (played by Virginie Ledoyen) who in history served as the Governess for Marie Antoinette's (and Louis XVI's children) with the film suggesting that "there could have been more ..." (What would a film focused on the "soft power" of Gossip be if it didn't provide "something new" to the Gossip mill ... ;-).

This irritation aside, I did find the film fascinating for its portrayal of the Royal Court at Versailles consumed with the petty application of the "soft power" of Gossip even as a "mob with torches" was mobilizing to march on its Gates.


(1) In the week following seeing this movie, I did go back and rent Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette [2006] (which I hadn't been particularly interested in seeing when it had come out and which had come out a few years before I began my blog in any case).  I wonder, can one give a movie a couple of Oscar nominations retroactively (and not just for "costume design")? ;-).  As many have said in light of this current film (which, as I've written here is excellent in its own right) Sofia Coppola's film was _far better_ than it seemed initially and certainly deserves far more credit than it received when it first came out.  And want to say that, honestly, I'm in agreement with this revised assessment.  Coppola's film, perhaps like Marie Antoinette herself, seems to have been initially unfairly judged / misunderstood.

(2) The following is a rather interesting article present in the 1917 Edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia (available online...) on Marie Antoinette.

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