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For Your Consideration: 'Farewell, My Queen'

Benoît Jacquot's new film Farewell, My Queen came up last March, when it was released in France. Although it was released in the United States last month, I just managed to catch a screening of it, and it is as polished and beautiful as it seemed from what I had read in the French dailies and weeklies. On a screenplay adapted by Jacquot and Gilles Taurand from Chantal Thomas's novel Les adieux à la reine, winner of the Prix Femina in 2002, the film covers a few world-altering days at the court of Versailles on and after July 14, 1789. Within the space of a few hours, the most impressive edifice of architecture, autocratic power, and the false idol of custom is about to crumble. We see it mostly through the eyes of someone who matters very little, Sidonie Laborde, the mysterious young woman who is summoned periodically to share her love of books by reading to distract the Queen of France.

Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) stars as Marie-Antoinette, a casting so perfect that it is impossible to believe that Kruger never thought, as she claimed in an interview, that she would ever portray her. Speaking French immaculately but with just a hint of her German upbringing, a gentle reminder that Marie-Antoinette was Austrian by birth, Kruger is both an extraordinary beauty but also has the distracted, out-of-touch quality that made Marie-Antoinette so hated by the French populace. (Sadly, the Queen's hameau, the Disney-like peasant village where Marie-Antoinette pretended to be a milkmaid, does not make an appearance in the film.) The Queen's attachment to the Duchesse de Polignac, played as a rather empty but gorgeous face (and more) by Virginie Ledoyen, created resentment among the nobility and vicious lies about the sexual nature of her relationship with Marie-Antoinette, most likely false, caused scandal. In a sense, Jacquot and Kruger's Marie-Antoinette takes up from where Sofia Coppola's frivolous Marie-Antoinette left off, with a flawed but sympathetic character. For all of her follies, and they were many, no one deserved to go through what she and her children endured at the hands of bloodthirsty revolutionaries hellbent on revenge.

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Léa Seydoux, who plays the Queen's lectrice, has had minor roles in Inglourious Basterds and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. As Sidonie, she proves that she is more than a pretty face -- and more than the scion of French cinema royalty (her grandfather and great-uncle are leaders of Pathé and Gaumont) -- bringing a sort of impenetrable enigma to the character, about whom little is revealed. Through Sidonie's interactions with the different social levels in the château, the other starring character, Versailles itself, is revealed -- in all of its restored glory. Sidonie runs through vast empty corridors to the Queen's apartments (on your next visit, time yourself walking from one end of the building to the other to understand the scope of the structure), wanders among the crowds of fawning nobles (most of whom have abandoned their own magnificent châteaux to live in small apartments, just for the chance to be near the king), visits the magnificent library (staffed by the kindly M. Moreau, played by Michel Robin in a Jean-Pierre Jeunet kind of casting), and makes the trek out to the Petit-Trianon, where Marie-Antoinette often stayed to get away from it all.

In the women-centered world where the film mostly resides -- with access scrupulously controlled by the Queen's maid (the deliciously supercilious Noémie Lvovsky), whose best one-liner sums up the social treachery of the place ("I have never had friends at Versailles") -- King Louis XVI (played laconically by Xavier Beauvois) and the levers of actual power seem far away. So much more so in the servants' kitchen and tiny room that Sidonie normally inhabits, a social order that becomes almost comically inverted over the space of a few days, as grand ladies begin to envy their chamber maids.

This film is still screening at the West End Cinema.

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