‘Farewell, My Queen’ Paints Seductive Portrait of Encroaching Doom
CHICAGO – Is there any actress in the world today with more seductive and transfixing eyes than Léa Seydoux? She often tilts her head in a direction that allows her to peer up from beneath lowered brows. Stanley Kubrick would loved to photograph her. Yet her radiant orbs are capable of conveying more than mere menace. She can appear frighteningly vulnerable and coldly calculating within the same take.
In Benoît Jacquot’s quietly entrancing picture, “Farewell, My Queen,” Seydoux’s eyes smolder with desire, even as budding tears threaten to disrupt her unwavering gaze. Based on Chantal Thomas’s book of the same name, “Queen” revolves around a fictitious love triangle in Versailles that was dismantled during the last crucial days of the French Revolution. Though it often plays like the final episode of an epic miniseries, Jacquot and his cast makes the most of every moment.
Seydoux plays Sidonie Laborde, a young servant girl who takes pleasure in her duties as a personal reader for Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Her infatuation with the Queen is so strong that it has blossomed into idolization. The Queen seems to sense this, and stokes the flames by treating her as a prized companion. In the film’s early moments, I was waiting for Jacquot’s film to develop into a lesbian variation on Sofia Coppola’s feminist Antoinette saga. Yet whereas Coppola’s 2006 “Marie Antoinette” was a lighter, more frivolous affair tinged with bitter poignance, Jacquot’s film is clearly aiming for a more grounded sense of realism, while using the Queen’s rumored lesbianism as the launching pad for its tale. Though Antoinette appears to have feelings for her adoring servant, her true emotions are held in check. It isn’t until the clock starts ticking away on her untimely fate that Antoinette finally decides to open up to Sidonie about the great love of her life: the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen of Jacquot’s “A Single Girl”). When Bastille falls, it has the same effect on Versailles that the iceberg had on the Titanic. Over the course of three frantic days, the palace’s inhabitants scramble for lifeboats as outraged voices start clamoring for their heads. This chaotic backdrop may suggest a more explosive and suspenseful picture, but the film’s most compelling drama takes place within the mind of its heroine.
Léa Seydoux stars in Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen.
Photo credit: Carole Bethuel/Cohen Media Group
Jacquot again affirms his skill in conveying a great deal through wordless imagery, such as an early shot where the violence on the streets is juxtaposed with the orderly tranquility of Versailles. As Sidonie’s hand skims the water while relaxing on a gondola, the floating corpse of a rat ruptures her dream world, while foreshadowing the encroaching doom. Though Kruger exquisitely conveys the agony of Antoinette’s heartache, Jacquot views her character from behind glass. A pivotal scene between the Queen and Duchess is choreographed and lit in such a way that it seems to be taking place in a stage production, or in a deleted scene from “Barry Lyndon.” Sidonie spies on the intimate encounter from a voyeuristic perch not unlike that of the audience. Romain Winding’s cinematography becomes far more visceral in scenes following Sidonie from behind as she navigates her way through the claustrophobic corridors of Versailles, while seeking guidance from historiographer Monsieur Moreau (the great Michel Robin). The fact that Sidonie is merely required to stare and observe for much of the film’s screen time is typical of the film’s limitations. It’s a minor work from Jacquot, and doesn’t aspire to say anything particularly important, though its portrait of a decaying utopia is coincidentally mirrored by the vacated monument of vanity up for sale in Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.”
As an ode to romantic obsession, “Farewell, My Queen” is rather captivating, particularly in its final act. The erotic tension in various scenes is amplified by Jacquot’s subtle compression of time, spare soundtrack and intent focus on the expressive faces of his beguiling actresses. When Sidonie bares her breasts before Antoinette, the Queen’s lingering gaze betrays her mask of indifference. This moment echoes an earlier scene where Sidonie finds the Duchess asleep in bed, and can’t help pulling back the covers to examine her nude body. It’s the compulsive nature of lustful passion that motivates Sidonie to go to whatever lengths necessary to preserve the well-being of her Queen. Her devotion culminates in a stunning sequence that warrants comparison to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” as the power of illusion enables Sidonie’s dreams to come true, if only for a brief moment.
Virginie Ledoyen and Diane Kruger star in Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen.
Photo credit: Carole Bethuel/Cohen Media Group
With a pokerface as impenetrable as it is photogenic, Seydoux could easily risk alienating audiences. No wonder she was cast as a sexy cardboard assassin in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” Yet at age 27, the actress has succeeded in seducing the world not only with the purity of her features, but the subtlety and resonance of her portrayals. What continues to haunt me about Jacquot’s latest film is Sidonie’s unwavering dedication to a woman who doesn’t think nearly as much of her. There’s a tragedy to her character, but also an unmistakable beauty in her selflessness. And when she’s caught in an extremely tense moment of quick-witted, life-or-death improvisation, Sidonie proves to be much stronger that even she may have realized. “Farewell, My Queen” is not a great film, but it’s good enough to make you hungry for more.