Farewell My Queen (Les adieux à la reine), directed by Benoît Jacquot with a screenplay written by Jacquot and Gilles Taurand and adapted from the novel of the same name by Chantal Thomas, is something of a mixed bag. On the plus side, it shows an extraordinary attention to detail when it comes to recreating life as it was at Versailles at the time of the French Revolution, in everything from the sets and the costumes down to the court behavior and social structure. But on the minus side however, it moves at a near glacial pace at times and doesn't really make a connection with the audience, always feeling a level removed emotionally.
Set at Versailles (much of the film was actually shot in and on the palace grounds at the real Versailles) on the eve of the French Revolution, the film is centered around the perspective of a young royal servant named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as a reader to the Queen, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). But as the film shows, being the royal reader was actually more akin to being the royal radio, something for the Queen to half-listen to in the background as she does other things. Which makes the character of Sidonie ideal as a witness to the goings on at court - always there, in the background, but largely unnoticed by the royals and the aristocrats who move about her in the same space but not at the same level.
The film proceeds to follow life at the palace over the next few days as the Revolution unfolds elsewhere, remote at first but gradually intruding more and more as rumors begin to creep in and a growing sense of uncertainty starts to pervade the royal court. But there does not seem to be any coherent story arc and no exposition is given to help us put any of this into some kind of chronological context. If you come to the film with a fairly well-grounded history of court life at the time of the French Revolution, then you will probably have a better sense of what is going on as the film progresses than I did. As it was, the film in and of itself failed to provide that, leaving me with more of a sense of muddled meandering than any actual plot progression.
What Farewell My Queen is best at is showing the life at Versailles at a kind of split-level - the life of the nobility as seen by their servants, and the life of the servants themselves, which in a way tend to mirror the lives of the nobility they serve in that one's status among the servant class is directly connected to the status of the particular noble they serve, with everyone constantly jockeying for anything that will give them an edge. Which makes information - and access to sources of information - the coin of the realm in this highly rarified world, particularly now that rumors of instability and revolution in the outside world (the world outside of Versailles, that is) are starting to seep into the palace, making nobility and servants alike increasingly uneasy. This is well brought out in the film as servants and even aristocrats are constantly searching out and bartering for information even as they pretend on the surface that nothing is wrong.
The other thing Farewell My Queen is best at is showing the gradual descent into disorder that takes place as people become increasingly unnerved and end up either being toppled from their positions - for real or suspected failure or disloyalty - or simply running off in an attempt to flee the approaching chaos before it reaches them. Staff functions slowly begin to break down as well, to the point that a servant makes the shocked comment that he saw the Queen having to actually open a door for herself because the servant who normally did it for her had disappeared. One of the best scenes shows Sidonie and a fellow servant looking out a window late at night and seeing a couple of mid-level aristocrats in the process of preparing to flee along with their servants, hurriedly loading up their elegant coach with paintings, furniture and whatever other valuables they can lay their hands on; rats deserting the royal ship they sense is sinking fast.
And yet one more point in Farewell My Queen's favor, at least artistically, is that Jacquot works to show what the real Versailles was like by not only shooting it on the actual historic location but also using only sunlight and candle light to illuminate the rooms, just the way they would have been back in 1789. He also shows that certain aspects of life were inescapable - even for the nobility - by showing how even the royal palace at Versailles had a rat problem, and how servants and even the nobility could end up looking disheveled if summoned suddenly. The difference in feel and appearance between the Versailles of Farewell My Queen and the usual ultra-sanitized and glamorized Hollywood version of a royal court is immediately felt and is vastly to the film's credit.
But for all of the artistry and atmosphere, Farewell My Queen ends up failing to make an emotional connection. Part of the reason is, I think, flaws in the ways the two main characters - the Queen and Sidonie - were written. Quite frankly, it's hard to sympathize with Diane Kruger's Marie Antoinette, who comes across as something of an insecure airhead with attention-deficit disorder. Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for this, writer/director Jacquot created a sub-plot implying a lesbian relationship between Antoinette and one of her ladies-in-waiting, Gabrielle de Polastron, the duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), but instead of adding anything it ends up making both characters even less believable - or sympathetic - as it comes across more as just neurotic neediness on the part of the Queen and clueless befuddlement on the part of Gabrielle. At the same time, Sidonie is something of an enigma. While on the one hand she displays something of a fascinated loyalty to the Queen she serves, Sidonie reveals nothing of herself. That this is done deliberately becomes clear in a scene where one of her fellow servants points this out, that Sidonie has never told anyone anything about herself - not a word about where she comes from, or what family she might have, what she thinks or feels or anything else. To which Sidonie responds with a silent look, after which she pretends the question was never asked. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with a character being enigmatic, but when everyone else in the film is left as little more than a title or a function, it doesn't give the audience much to connect with. The result, for me anyway, is that by the time the film reached it's supposed climax, I didn't really care because I never become invested emotionally in any of the characters.
This also comes out in the way that a number of scenes are visually crafted. In several scenes, you can actually sense the characters moving into position and then staying there for a moment, giving you the impression that, for that moment, you're looking at a painting from the period where the people and the setting have been preserved on canvas. But while this works artistically, it comes at a cost not only of further slowing the pace of the film, but of also draining the characters of any real sense of individuality or actual life. Once in a while a character gets to say or do something that causes them to rise, however briefly, above the film's at times stultifying devotion to atmosphere, but it's never enough to allow them to come fully to life.
Furthermore, the film ends up having a frustrating and almost claustrophobic feel as all of the real action - there is a revolution going on after all - takes place off-stage, and we only hear about it in whispers of rumor and occasional hurried deliveries of news. You frequently long to see some actual scenes of what's happening beyond the palace grounds, but the camera rarely goes there.
All in all, I can recommend Farewell My Queen for being a stylistically crafted film that's beautiful to look at, and for the way it conjures a sense of what court life at Versailles was like and the atmosphere that must have existed when that that life began to fall apart as the country was consumed by the French Revolution. But in terms of offering anything in the way of historical perspective or even an engaging storyline or set of characters, I'm afraid it falls more than a little short.