Two weeks ago, having survived the emotional roller coaster of eighth grade, my daughter and I took a quick vacation to Europe. We spent the second of our three days in Paris at the palace of Versailles. We went out via commuter rail (no €95 tourist excursion bus for us, merci beaucoup) and were back at our hotel by midafternoon.
On the way, I told her about the chateau’s history, how Louis XIV made it the de rigueur place to be in order to control (and bankrupt) his nobles, and how a hundred years later, the French mob seized it from Louis XVI and his ill-fated queen. Once there, we stood in line for tickets, then stood in line to enter the chateau. Inside, the crowds dispersed fairly quickly (the rooms are enormous, after all) and we were able to admire the artwork, marble, mirrors, and furnishings at our leisure. Until, that is, we were about 90 percent through our tour and suddenly we could hardly move. You see, we had reached the queen’s apartments, and her bedchamber was packed wall to wall.
Why are we still so fascinated with Marie-Antoinette?
The popular media has portrayed her as a selfish and vain airhead who infamously suggested that the public eat cake when she was told that they had no bread. Sofia Coppola’s 2006 movie was “the French Revolution meets Juicy Couture,” set to a club kids soundtrack. An eighteenth-century “It Girl,” Coppola’s young queen was too busy rockin’ to realize that her head was about to roll.
But, surely the real woman couldn’t have been as oblivious to her people’s predicament or her pending fate?
In the new film Farewell, My Queen, we share a palace insider’s perspective as Marie-Antoinette lives her last days at Versailles, prior to her arrest and eventual appointment with “Madame Guillotine.” Her reader, a pensive young woman named Sidonie, played with an intense smolder by Léa Seydoux, watches and worships the queen. Sidonie adores her mistress, and we hear more than once that she cannot deny her any request.
At first the two young women seem to be on very friendly terms. They sit closely reading the latest play aloud, and we see a softer side of the queen when she rubs rosewater on Sidonie’s inflamed mosquito bites. “We live in a swamp!” she complains disdainfully. But, as quick as she is to befriend her reader, she drops her just as abruptly and moves on to other critical royal matters, like a new idea she has for embroidery. Actress Diane Kruger, who can look gorgeous or pinched depending on the camera’s angle, deftly balances these different aspects of the character: a self-centered hedonist, helpless in the face of history. She doesn’t come across as stupid—in fact, she seems to grasp the imminent danger more accurately than her husband does—but she cannot stop the machine of immoderate luxury that surrounds her. She knows what is happening, but is still mired in her decadent lifestyle.
With the revolution just outside the chateau’s golden gates, the movie revolves around a doomed love triangle. Sidonie is hopelessly smitten with Marie-Antoinette, but the queen is enthralled to courtier and confidante Gabrielle de Polignac, played with a manipulative edge by Virginie Ledoyen. The queen explains her infatuation to Sidonie and asks the girl’s help in bringing her love to her. Although there is very little physical interaction between the women and just two scenes with nudity, there is, shall we say, beaucoup de tension sexuelle.
The court, and particularly the servants, are well aware of the queen’s feelings, but they are far more interested in current events. A document is being circulated that contains the names of some 250 enemies of the people who must be beheaded. The queen and her paramour are at the very top of the list.
Much of the movie takes place after hours and depicts how the court reacts to the coming siege. Some, such as an elderly librarian, drink themselves into oblivion. One servant elopes with a member of the guard; another raids the queen’s finery. At least one courtier commits suicide. Sidonie vows to stand by her mistress “as long as she needs me.”
And, bien sûr, she is called by the queen and asked to make a great sacrifice; with stakes high, Marie-Antoinette exercises absolute power. Her eventual betrayal of Sidonie is ruthless and razor-sharp, and I for one was taken by surprise. At this point, cake or no cake, I decided that Marie-Antoinette, at least the one in Farewell, My Queen, deserved what she got.
Farewell, My Queen, directed by Benoît Jacquot, is based on the novel Les adieux à la reine by writer and historian Chantal Thomas. The book received the Prix Feminina and the Prix de l’Academie de Versailles and has been translated into 20 languages. It is a companion piece to Thomas’s earlier and more academic volume, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette.
Having just left Paris, where the myth of Marie-Antoinette manifests itself in rhinestone-studded tee shirts along the rue de Rivoli, I confess I was expecting a more colorful experience. Like most period dramas, Farewell, My Queen is often sumptuous to watch. The costumes and the set (it was filmed at Versailles) are exactly as we picture them when we try to romance that period of history. But as much time, or more, is spent in gritty servant dormitories and dusty hallways. Even an idyllic gondola ride on the estate’s Venetian canal is interrupted by the presence of a bloated dead rat. The metaphors are a bit heavy.
What stayed with me most was the stillness. When you tour Versailles, the rooms are flooded with light. But Farewell, My Queen reminds us that even the glittering hall of mirrors would have been dark and shadowy when lit only with candles. And, on the brink of a literal and figurative fin de siècle and the bloody abolition of the ancien régime, the darkness is thick with sinister forces.
The movie is thought-provoking and an interesting addition to the composite character of the late, great Marie-Antoinette. It is a portrait of a fragile society within a society, one that is about to be snuffed. At the risk of a cliché, it is fairly heady stuff.