By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 15, 2012 at 9:56AM
In the land of the costume drama, truly, films about Marie Antoinette are Queen, promising lavish sets, romantic intrigue and shocking decadence -- but they don't always deliver. Director Benoît Jacquot's uninspiring take on the period opened the Berlin Film Festival days ago, but something about the film's lack of urgency must be contagious, and we're only getting around to reviewing it now. While "Farewell, My Queen" does boast admirable elements (more on those below) overall, despite some showy trappings it is a frustratingly empty experience, built around a character whose blankness is supposed to be a virtue, but ends up costing the film dearly in terms of identification and interest.
The empty hole where the heart and soul of the picture should be is Sidonie LaBorde, a young woman of the household whose job is to recommend books from the library and read aloud to the Queen. Sidonie is obsessively in love with her Queen -- just one of two central female-on-female loves the film features -- devotedly loyal and entirely blind to her faults until Her Majesty's final monstrous betrayal strips the veil from her eyes. In the role, Léa Seydoux is more watchable than her character deserves, but even her sulky, sometimes sly pout, and wary watchfulness cannot compensate for the vaccuum where a personality should be. That she only truly comes alive in the presence of her adored Queen, and has an almost stalker level of focus on the object of her affection we understand, but we are also asked to care for her, and without any sense of why she totally subsumes herself and defines herself through another, that becomes increasingly difficult.
That this absence is a deliberate choice and not an accident of underwriting is clear. When Sidonie is called on it by her chatty maidservant friend ("We don't know anything about you...who are you? Do you even have parents?"), Sidonie's reply is typical: she says nothing. And later, when an ill-judged voiceover suddenly lets us into Sidonie's head for a moment, it is just to let is know that she is "no one." At a certain point, this mysteriousness stops being enigmatic and starts to frustrate, as our imagination is given too few footholds, too few pieces of the Sidonie puzzle to stay interested.
This is a pity, because there are some unusual elements here which, better developed and arranged around a more interesting character, could have elevated the film into the upper ranks of the royalty costume drama (to the level of, say, "Elizabeth" or "La Reine Margot"). Chief among them is Diane Kruger's performance as the titular Queen. Comparisons with Kirsten Dunst's version of the same role are inevitable, but it is to her credit that Kruger, an actress this writer has found lacklustre in the past, does as much with her few scenes as Dunst did with a whole film in terms of creating a believable portrait. Her Marie Antoinette is selfish, vain and capricious, to be sure, but here she is also capable of a sweetness and consideration that, while it ultimately serves her manipulative ends, helps us understand how Sidonie could fall so hard.
Unusual, too, is the depiction of court life. An interesting upstairs/downstairs dynamic emerges, in which less time is spent in sparkly chandeliered halls than in grimy passageways, spartan quarters, and on unadorned staircases. Rats appear often; Sidonie scratches at her mosquito bites; and it's always fun to see people in big long skirts fall over, and as a factor of her youth and lack of sophistication, Sidonie does that a lot. This willingness to show ugliness and gracelessness certainly sets it apart from the pop-candy-confectionary of Sofia Coppola's version.
But really, this film is destined for a life as "that Marie Antoinette lesbian movie," because that's pretty much the sum total of what it contributes to the canon. It is set during the tumultuous days immediately following the storming of the Bastille, and some have been quick to try and draw topical parallels between "Farewell, My Queen" and current political upheaval, but, you know what? It takes place during a revolution, and there are revolutions happening now -- that is pretty much the length and breadth of that comparison. If topicality exists it is more in the area of celebrity worship, with Sidonie the fan and Marie Antoinette the, who knows, Kim Kardashian figure. But here too the film is trumped; cult of celebrity is what the Coppola movie was pretty much entirely about.
And so the hook of this film is the girl-on-girl "action," equating to a lot of longing looks, passionate speeches and one full-length lingering shot of Virginie Ledoyen's (absolutely rocking) naked body (contrasted with the Sidonie's humiliating, but no less rocking, nakedness later). The Queen here is not just the subject of same-sex love, but is also involved in a Sapphic affair of her own, with Ledoyen's Gabrielle de Pontignac. The brief moments when the three lead females are all present do fizz with surprising energy, the crisscrossing of class barriers, rivalry, jealousy and admiration pointing the way to what could have been a much more interesting film. But Gabrielle, too, is sadly underdeveloped and underused, and the end, "Farewell, My Queen," splashy logline aside, manages to be both overwrought and strangely lacking in drama, staggering under the deadening weight of an uninvolving central character. It is a shame, because many of the elements were in place for something much more compelling. [C]