Personal Differences, by David Bax
There’s an interpretation to be made about Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (in fact, it’s largely the one you’re about to read) that is strictly political. However, if films were that dry and straightforward, they probably wouldn’t still be such a popular art form. Jacquot uses the personal story not simply as a de rigeur form for his political musings. He displays insight into the kind of human elements of politics that make both politics and art worthwhile.
Farewell, My Queen takes places at Versailles on the day of and the two days immediately preceding the storming of the Bastille in Paris. Our main character is Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a servant to the queen, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie is in charge of the queen’s books and her job, as we see in the first scene, involves reading to her. This is, to Sidonie, a close bond. Queen Marie, on the other hand, is less definite about her relationship to her servants. Sidonie is fine with that.
Jacquot liberally peppers his film with political reminders. It’s not just the class differences that are highlighted. That’s little more than superficial pageantry. He is not circumspect about the economic disparity, though. The people of France are not revolting because they wish they were aristocrats. It’s because they are starving. Sidonie is of interest because she lives in both worlds. She is a poor commoner (when threatened with the notion that the cost of a missing ornate clock would come out of her pay, she says, “I’d need many lives”). Yet, due to her position, her emotional loyalties lie with the royals.
Before Sidonie is a commoner, though, she is an individual. She is clearly not defined by her social and economic status. She is defined by her desires (her allegiance to the queen goes far beyond mere duty) and her flaws (her reticence to open up to the other servants makes her a subject of their suspicion).
All this comes through Seydoux’s mesmerizing performance. There’s a studied and controlled blankness to her face much of the time. It’s a look no doubt mastered by many of those whose jobs make them pretend not to exist in front of their employers. But Seydoux uses it masterfully. The slightest shift of the eyes or twitch of the mouth is like an orchestra coming to life in sudden, perfect harmony.
Kruger (who, along with Seydoux, appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), is also more than competent. Still, the real star of the upper class characters is Virginie Ledoyen as Gabrielle de Polignac, the queen’s close friend and perhaps lover. Ledoyen has always been talented and brought an intense inner life to the young characters she has played (do yourself a favor and see her in Jacquot’s A Single Girl from 1995). Here, though, in her mid-30’s, her presence on screen has calmed and focused. She is all the more beautiful for it. Ledoyen has almost no dialogue, especially in the film’s first half and must also play a character who is talked about in hushed tones by everyone before we really see her. It’s a lot to live up to but, when she is finally fully revealed, we realize the hold she has over other characters is more than earned.
Like with A Single Girl, Jacquot employs a mostly handheld aesthetic. He often follows Sidonie through Versailles’ long corridors as she attempts to both see to her duties and to understand just what is going on in the world outside the gates. As a result, the film is propelled ahead of us, forcing us to constantly be searching for what’s next, keeping us tensely engaged.
After Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Farewell, My Queen may just be the first great film released in American theaters in 2012. It’s expertly crafted, riveting, thrilling and heartbreaking. And it understands why we become so invested in things like our current presidential election. It understands that the political is personal.