An anguished queen, a regime tottering
The rabble and the homeless must be cleared from the gates each morning. Dead rats bob in the pond where a faux Venetian gondolier glides. The bread is old, and the news from Paris is not good. There is a list of names - lords and ladies, counts and countesses - and all are to be beheaded.
Farewell, My Queen, Benoît Jacquot's beautifully observed historical piece, begins on the first Bastille Day, July 14, 1789, and proceeds over the next three days as France is rocked by revolt. But at Versailles, where Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) is camped in cloistered luxury, things at first appear as they always have. The queen orders dresses and tapestries to be made, and she calls for her reader, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), to bring books, and read them aloud.
It is through Sidonie's eyes that Farewell, My Queen unfurls. A young woman who lives in the servants' quarters and does her lady's bidding with pride, she is witness to the monarch's most private moments. Sidonie has friends in the court - an elderly archivist, a seamstress - but she remains steadfastly loyal to the queen, guarding her relationship and the secrets she has learned.
And then, as things start to unravel, and panic sets in, Marie Antoinette confides that she is desperately in love with another woman, the duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). The queen's longing and heartache are palpable. Sidonie absorbs the news like a therapist noting her patient's distress.
Although it was shot at Versailles, and its actors are dressed to the 18th-century nines, Farewell, My Queen has a loose, reportorial intimacy about it. Sidonie moves from the spare, candlelit halls of the servants' residence to the gilded salons of the main palace, and to the only slightly less regal digs of the chateau where Marie Antoinette retreats as her world begins to collapse - the handheld camera taking it all in.
The film's Sapphic themes - the queen's anguished ardor for the duchess, the queen dabbing rosewater on her reader's arms when she sees that Sidonie is covered in mosquito bites - percolate discreetly.
Seydoux, no doubt best known for her kickboxing catfight with Paula Patton in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, gives a quiet, watchful performance, suggesting fealty for her lady but also a strong independent streak.
She'll need that, as mobs roam the streets, looking for bewigged heads to roll.