It’s from the seemingly unglamorous station of a handmaiden that co-writer/director Benoit Jacquot presents an alternate perspective on a historical event on the brink of artistic saturation. Instead of the rise and fall of the famously decadent Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) we’re presented with the perspective of Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), the Queen’s reader, and the rest of the ‘help’, squirming as the Bastille is stormed and irrevocably triggers an encroaching French Revolution.
The film resonates most in the moments that Versailles’ seclusion and world of royalty figuratively comes crashing back to earth. Jacquot portrays the bowels of the palace like an ant nest that’s being prodded by a sadistic child. The workers are abuzz translating panic of the French Monarchy and the machinations of France in turmoil. Traditional formality and acceptable behaviours collapse in the scramble for self-preservation. It’s a terrific insight into the usually voiceless scaffolding protecting and holding these dilapidated hierarchical structures together. Whilst behind closed doors the collapsing monarchy is trying to bandage the fatal bullet wound of revolution. The cinematography by Romain Winding frantically stalks Sidonie through the halls of the palace. There’s a palpable panic emanating from the sycophantic servants and court hovering in the orbit of this supernova. With the production shot on location in Versailles, and the costuming and make-up sparing no expense, it’s an extravagantly detailed period piece.
The portrayal of Marie Antoinette however, did feel more human and sympathetic in the hands of Jacquot. Despite the fact that you’re seeing her aloof behaviour and nanosecond attention span (portrayed by a veritable army of servants and distractions); there’s a distinct vulnerability and passion for her station that was absent from Sofia Coppolla’s Marie Antionette.
Sidonie is hopelessly infatuated with the queen. As she sits at her bed side reading novels and plays allowed; Jacquot tightly frames her supple and buxom frame while she delivers the words with husky tones and sensuous intent. All the while Kruger’s Antoinette causes scandal by elevating the beautiful Gabrielle de Polignacinto (Virginie Ledoyen) into court and reciprocates the descent into infatuation in the face of usurping. The emphatic (if misplaced) bi-curious tension can be cut with a knife.
That leads me to the film’s major flaws. The focus on Sidonie’s unique perspective discounts those other historically significant moments in favour the subjective pining for, or fawning over the Queen. In a moment that Sidonie is about to see King Louie, modestly addressing his people outside the confines of the Versailles gates, we’re kept outside only to have Sidonie (who sneaks into the address)recount and reframe the significance of the event for what it means for the Queen. There’s a repetitiousness of the stylistic choices as the camera languidly obsesses over the Queen, or snaking through the halls that should garner praise, but happens so frequently that it becomes tiresome
Farewell, My Queen is a sanctification of history’s most gluttonous figures, though the eyes of an obsessed handmaiden. It should be retitled; ‘Sidonie, Marie Antoinette’s just not that into you.’
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.