Movie review – Misreading the revolution

2012-10-27 16:32

Four days and three nights. This is the time span of Farewell, My Queen, Benoît Jacquot’s adaptation of Chantal Thomas’ book of the same name.

The story revolves around the relationship between France’s Queen Marie Antoinette and Sidonie Laborde, whose only job is to read to the queen.

In the claustrophobic interior of Versailles, the politics, petty feuds and intrigue grow like fungus in the dark.

And the goings-on in the palace are nothing compared with what’s happening beyond the gold-gilded gates.

Neither the characters nor the audience see the rising mob of discontent until it is too late.

“We were filming days that changed the world from the point of view of a girl at the centre of that action,” says Jacquot.

“The link between the historical events and the characters is relevant. We are supposed to know everything, but we are blinded by our own place in the world.”

With stories of lavish extensions to presidential homes, wasteful government departments as well as exploitative captains of industry driving people to revolt, this week’s news reads like you might have expected it to in 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution.

This is why this story of a household of women in a time and place long gone is likely to send a chill down your spine as you watch it.

Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) frets about what book to read to her beloved queen (Diane Kruger).

The queen’s dresser, meanwhile, squirrels away laces and brocades while packing for the queen, who can’t quite decide whether or not to go to the countryside.

This while her husband, the king, deals with the peasants, who are being more bothersome than usual.

Sidonie has developed a crush on the queen and misreads into the spoilt queen’s actions a thousand signs that she favours her too.

This mirrors the monarchy’s own misreading of the French people at the time.

The film, Jacquot’s 20th big screen production, is about the uneventful beginning of a catastrophic clash of different worlds.

“I was interested in the concentration of time and place,” says the director, who also says there aren’t many films about the doomed French queen, though Sofia Coppola’s relatively recent version of the queen’s story with Kirsten Dunst sticks in the memory.

But this is a far cry from that film, as it deals with an interior world and how, no matter how hard you try, you can’t buffer yourself from the world and the consequences of your actions.

Jacquot adapted the novel for the screen and made a few tweaks. In the book, protagonist Sidonie is in her fifties, but Jacquot made her 30 years younger.

“She had to be in her childhood, have an innocence,” he says.

This adds poignancy to the fate of these women because, of course, even the careless and silly queen was little more than a young adult when she lost her head.

The film is fascinating on a number of levels.

It offers an enticing, though fictionalised, view of a rarefied hidden world.

It also makes a broader political statement, intended or not, about the cost of excess and the price of not reading signs around you.

The film also has at its heart a betrayal so brutal it will give you a jolt, much like the one Sidonie and Marie Antoinette get when they finally see the pitchforks and the murder in the eyes of those who wield them.

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