Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2012 9:39 am 
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The French Revolution from an odd angle

History books often ring false because they're narrated from an omniscient point of view that favors great men and power. Farewell, My Queen/Les Adieux à la reine, a 2002 Prix Fémina-award-winning novel by Chantal Thomas adapted by Benoît Jacquot, seeks to describe Versailles at the precise moment of the storming of the Bastille and the chaotic days thereafter (July 14-17, 1789) from the viewpoint of a very minor insider -- the "reader" for Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) lives in a humble room at Versailles; her only possession of value is a nice clock. Ironically, Seydoux herself is a real film princess, being granddaughter and niece of the combined ruling Gaument-Pathé cinema families. Sidonie is nobody, but due to her job she regularly spends time alone with the Queen of France, whom she idolizes and is dedicated to serving. By being situated on the edge of great events instead of staring at them head-on we are enabled to view a key moment of French history from a new angle. The advantage is that the picture provided feels more authentic. And like Sofia Coppola, Jacquot had the privilege of shooting actually at Versailes: the glittering hallways and gilded and chandeliered rooms enfilade are the real stars of the show.

The disadvantage of Thomas' narrator is that she's limited and unreliable: she's blinded by her super-loyalty and her minor role in the court provides only fleeting views of main events. But Jacquot, whose filmography is uneven, nonetheless scores a relative success here by handling the material simply. He relies on a sure-fire mix of candlelight and gowns, wise old men and beautiful young women. He even throws in one sexy young man, a fake Italian called Paolo (Vladimir Consigny) who mans a gondola and sings in Italian but is really a French nobody, like Sidonie, whom he meets and makes a play for. They are all ready to get it on in a hallway, but it's a sign of how chaotic and frightening events have become that even that quick youthful coupling is interrupted.

Sidonie enjoys the friendship of a denizen of the royal records, Jacob Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), an historian and ardent royalist (though we aren't told that). She takes directions from Madame Campan (Noémie Lvovsky), first lady of the bedchamber (who wrote memoirs of Marie Antoinette, though that's not mentioned either). Jacquot's film is a succession of swift scenes in which moments of chaos and growing terror at court alternate with the routine frivolities. Rome is burning, the court is fleeing -- and the faithful few are sewing. Sidonie and her colleague Honorine (Julie-Marie Parmentier) continue to work on an embroidery of a dahlia to delight the Queen. Marie Antoinette (author Thomas perhaps riffing here off the many libels cooked up against the Queen later as pretexts for her execution) nurtures a virtually open lesbian attraction for the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). The Duchess, in her special green silk gown symbolizing hope, envy, and a dozen other things, is far more interesting to the Queen than the plump, pasty-faced Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois), and, unfortunately for Sidonie, eclipses her in the Queen's affections as well.

The best scenes are the ones in the dark corridors behind the halls and mirrors and great rooms enfillade where aristocrats and servants, increasingly confused about who is which, hover clutching candles and trading rumors of who has fled and who has been offed by the revolutionaries.

Approaching the events crabwise captures the curious mixture of order and disorder that doubtless indeed prevailed. Rumor is how people know what is going on. The physical "pamphlet" listing 200-odd aristocrats who must be beheaded is read by an aristocrat (Jacques Nolot) in the chaotic jumbled corridor amid the flickering candlelight. Madame Campan says this must be kept secret. It's later given to Marie Antoinette and she throws it into the fire. She decides to flee to Metz (and gives orders for items to bring including a coffee pot, teapot, and chocolatière), but the King's decision to remain at Versailles and go to Paris alone frustrates that hope. Several scenes not involving Sidonie are still from her POV: we see Marie Antoinette and the Duchess de Polignac alone together because Sidonie is spying through a doorway. Anyway this is a film of atmosphere and suggestive glimpses rather than action. The point is that the rulers, used to trivial pursuits, have no real idea how to act in the crisis. Threatened with beheading, the Queen burns love letters and gathers her jewels. Sidonie's world is crumbling but she still focuses all her efforts on gaining more favor with her mistress. The story dutifully provides a kind of surprise ending for Sidonie that does not end her indirect link with the higher-ups.

The film maintains well its sense of disorder and panic -- the latter unnecessarily underlined with constant tremulous mood music. One would need a novel or a mini-series to convey fully the complexities of mind and personality behind this young woman narrator, who like all the rest is only glimpsed but clearly is as smart and well-read and crafty as she is loyal. The end result of the focus on a zigzag of fleeting moments is that the viewer is intrigued but not much moved.

Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen/Les adieux à la reine, a French-Spanish coproduction, was the opening night film at Berlin 2011. It opened in French cinemas March 21, 2012 and did very well with the French critics (Allociné press: 4.3). It was watched for this review at a press screening for the March 1-11, 2012 UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center series, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. It was also included in the SFIFF. It opens a limited US theatrical release July 13, 2012.

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