Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux) is an appliance. She reads for her queen, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), who uses her like someone in our era would use a radio. Laborde comes to the queen’s room each morning to do her job. The rest of the time she remains on standby for her majesty. The young woman worships her queen. She also enjoys her slightly elevated status as a woman who can read and as a servant in direct contact to royalty.
When not doing her duties, Laborne lives in squalor. She is looked on with distrust and envy by many of her peers, but brushes that off. The access to her queen means everything to her. Never mind how easily she is dismissed when Antoinette is finished with her services.
Laborde’s position allows her to overhear gossip and to learn a bit about the social and political goings-on in the area. Something is wrong, something big. There is lots of anxious chatter about rebellion on the outside. There is much distress among the privileged, though Antoinette appears to either be oblivious to the discontent or actively blocking it out.
Set in 1789 Versailles, Farewell, My Queen takes place at the beginning of the French Revolution, but the story is presented through the eyes of Laborde, so don’t expect a lot of details about the revolution. The royalty live in insulation within Versailles and Laborde only overhears a tiny fraction of what they know. Ignorance abounds, coupled with growing tension. Imagine living in a house of cards and feeling the first brush of a breeze.
Costume dramas usually make me groggy, but director Benoit Jacquot establishes and maintains a sense of urgency here. All the fussiness one expects from a costume drama is here, but the ominous tone, accented effectively by Bruno Coulais’ score, makes the characters seem like more than just overdressed magpies.
Lea Seydoux, who reminds me of early-career Julia Stiles, is fine as Laborde, an intelligent young woman trying to work her way forward through the fog of ignorance and misconceptions. She is driven, despite having no clear picture of her destination.
I’ve not said much about Marie Antoinette because the structure of the film prevents us from gaining much insight. Diane Kruger’s smart performance offers a self-absorbed, fiercely disconnected royal focused on fashion design and obsessed with her companion, Gabrielle de Polignac, masterfully played by Virginie Ledoyen. Her love for de Polignac humanizes Antoinette enough to partially offset her pampered ugliness and lack of concern for most of the people around her. Some critics have complained that the film does not go into more detail about Antoinette and the politics of the time. They are missing the point of the film.
Farewell, My Queen deals with blind devotion. Most of the characters are in the dark, by circumstance or choice. In this instance, too many facts can only get in the way of the truth of the tale.