Editor’s note: Farewell, My Queen is opening in limited theaters this week, so please enjoy this re-run of our review from the Berlin Film Festival, originally posted on February 9, 2012.
The realm of 18th century France is a dusty one. Period dramas, especially lofty costume dramas, are so numerous that you can barely toss a powdered wig without hitting one. With Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux à la Reine), writer/director Benoît Jacquot tears off the wig, pulls down the drapes and sets fire to both.
The wonderfully un-stuffy film stars and is told through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who acts as a cipher for the manic last few days of Marie Antoinette’s (Diane Kruger) reign in the late 1700s. It’s Laborde’s story, meaning it’s the story of a voyeur who watches from doorjambs as the business of being extravagantly wealthy and powerful becomes not only meaningless, but fatal.
The vantage point is a bold angle that comes with its own set of challenges. Instead of following the leader, it makes Versailles an insular cocoon where rumors float down candle-lit hallways on sleepless nights and the people trapped by their own excess are revealed more through reaction than action. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s one that Jacquot and company handle with something close to greatness.
If the perspective is one reason this film bucks the period trend, its pacing and aggressive nature are real reasons to praise it. This is no dry wheeze where polite society hems and yawns through subtext and things unspoken. It’s direct. It’s nasty. Beyond forcing the main perspective and anchor into the lower class, it pivots off of a vision of perfection that is rarely seen. Opulence is hard to take seriously when it demands that dozens of loudly-dressed patrons shuffle-run down the hall in order to appear poised and proper like statues who have always stood in the place where the King and Queen are about to emerge.
It’s a desperate awkwardness born from trying to force things to appear a certain way. Instead of being played for laughs, it’s more often played for pity.
On the acting front, Seydoux makes it all look easy. She’s cunning and clever, but she’s appropriately weighed down by her station. She has the intricate task of existing not as a true main character, but as the character that’s onscreen the most. Even though she’s a constant presence, the story seems to happen around her as she observes and acts accordingly. It’s a steamy essence that she brings to everything, and her crisp slyness rings throughout.
However, even with stunted screen time, it’s Kruger that radiates the most here. She’s so strong a force that Antoinette is in every room and thought without being seen. Kruger doesn’t play her as an uncaring hammer – she creates a monarch that’s sometimes childlike and fearful behind the shrewd wielding of her influence and position.
When the two are together, there’s a strand of tension tied tightly between them, and they (and all women in the film) seem to play each conversation as if a fight or a passionate kiss is about to erupt. That subtle, semi-violent sexuality hangs on the coattails of each scene – used for both titillation, drama and insecurity.
Sadly, the movie falls off its pedestal for two reasons. For one, Jacquot (and/or his cinematographer Romain Winding) approach the camera work like a fidgeting little child tugging on his mother’s dress in church. It’s as if they received a shot-style-of-the-day calendar and just had to use it. The best segments come when the director calms down and lets the dialogue move on its own. The lack of cohesion is irritating, but why it shifts back and forth from steady to handheld is baffling. No matter the answer, it injures the overall product and gives the appearance that Jacquot had the camera move simply because he didn’t know what else to do while people were engrossed in long bouts of talking.
For two, a handful of the scenes feel staged and overly produced. There’s a false-feeling choreography to some of it that tends to value a poetic movement of people over something that would feel more natural – especially considering how organic the core of the story emerges.
The damage is there, but the movie is still a fantastic piece of period work that doesn’t follow any of the rules that make costume dramas so drab and dull. It’s innovative without being crudely rebellious, and the acting on display is formidable and incendiary. It goes without saying that the production design, make-up and costuming is strong – that’s the very least a film like this can do. What’s really magical about Farewell, My Queen is that it gives the audience something to do other than stare at the scenery. It’s thrilling. A rare example of something antique feeling genuinely brand new.