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In July 1789, the French Revolution is rumbling. Far from the turmoil, at the Château de Versailles, King Louis XVI, Queen Marie-Antoinette and their courtiers keep on living their usual carefree lives. But when the news of the storming of the Bastille reaches them, panic sets in and most of the aristocrats and their servants desert the sinking ship, leaving the Royal Family practically alone. Which is not the case of Sidonie Laborde, the Queen's reader, a young woman, entirely devoted to her mistress; she will not give her up under any circumstances. What Sidonie does not know yet is that these are the last three days she will spend in the company of her beloved Queen... Written by
For the next few years, it must be assumed that any film featuring a popular uprising will attract lazy comparisons to the Arab Spring. The wild waters of revolution run swift in Benoit Jacquot's "Farewell, My Queen", set in the days of July, 1789. Over a wet week in France, starving Parisians storm the symbol of state tyranny, the Bastille, seizing guns and ammunition. Protesters issue a list of demands, calling for the beheadings of nearly 300 influential figures. The de facto signs of regime change are everywhere. Dead rats float in the Grand Canal in Versaille; mosquitoes terrorize the members of the Royal household. Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), the Queen of France, however, has escapism on her mind she sits in bed, skim-reading the latest fashion pages.
In this task, she is aided by a number of ladies-in-waiting and her reader, Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux). The young woman is called to run to the palace library and return with books and plays she reads aloud to the queen. We learn she is a member of the queen's inner circle and somewhat infatuated with her employer. She performs her duties with a mixture of fear, envy and respect. When the stench of revolution is impossible to ignore, she is told she will be guided to safety. Understandably, she feels more than a little betrayed when the queen orders her to impersonate a fleeing aristocrat, Gabrielle de Polignac, who will accompany her, dressed as a servant. If she is captured, Laborde risks death, while Polignac will abscond to safety.
This could all be familiar territory Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" (2006) took a distinctly sweet-toothed approach to the French Revolution, imprisoning Kirsten Dunst behind tiers of artisan cakes. In Coppola's film, the French royals behaved like party-goers on an episode of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16". "Farewell, My Queen", which is based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, isn't confection of the same variety. This dimly lit and low budget film marks the end of the fantasy world of Versailles, its gilded halls, jeweled furniture and costumed courtiers. The Royal staff bow and curtsy at every available opportunity in their spare time, they trade gossip about the private indiscretions of their employers and idly speculate the future of post-revolutionary France.
Unfortunately, the inner workings of the court of Versailles simply aren't any match for the layered politics that define teenage life on "My Super Sweet 16". While Coppola's film was candy floss masquerading as history, "Farewell, My Queen" succeeds in laboring every aspect of daily life at the Royal court. We are told, time and time again, there lurks intrigue behind every palace wall most of it remains frustratingly off screen. At one point, I found myself thinking Laborde's chores were no different from the experiences of any gap year student and considerably less hedonistic.
The end, when it arrives, is all too predictable. As members of the royal household are attacked on the streets of Paris, the occupants of Versaille decide to flee. As the royals leave for the last time, their carriages bursting with furniture and jewels, the staff is told "the King will now check the temperature of the throne room". Ice-cold, I would imagine. Not unlike Jacquot's French revolution.
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