Plans this weekend? Well here’s one more to add to your list: celebrate Bastille Day in the comfort of a cool, dark theater as you take in a showing of Benoît Jaquot‘s Farewell, My Queen, which opened in select cinemas yesterday. We also suggest you don your finest Céline and bring along some brioche for the full francophile experience, but not to worry if you have neither on hand — the majestic tableaux of Versailles and swath upon swath of French silk will more than suffice.
Based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, the film stars French ingenue Léa Seydoux opposite Diane Kruger‘s Marie Antoinette, the latter a fitting casting choice if ever there was one. The actress has expressed an affinity for the infamous Queen given their similar heritage (Kruger is German; Antoinette Austrian) and the fact that, like Antoinette, her mother is named Marie-Thérèse.
Unlike previous films centered around the court of Louis XVI, Farewell, My Queen concerns itself less with the frippery and grandeur of the palace than with the pivotal moment at which the elaborate mores holding it together collapse upon themselves. This moment, of course, lies in the throes of the French Revolution, within the three days surrounding the storming of the Bastille over which the entire plot takes place. Speaking with director Benoît Jacquot in New York earlier this week, we learned that the narrative’s quick pace was one of the main points that drew him to Thomas’ book. “It’s a situation, a historical catastrophe with tremendous panic,” Jacquot explains. And indeed the viewer bears witness to this escalating panic over the course of the film, from the early rumblings of distress to the full-fledged mayhem that ensues when revolutionaries call for the beheading of the King and Queen.
Léa Seydoux gives a captivating performance as Sidonie, Marie Antoinette’s young and adoring reader, through whose eyes we see the action unfold with a palpable, heart-in-throat urgency. The relationship between the two women is bound by a web of hierarchical strictures, but as the revolution unfolds, these codes snap and fissure, leading the Queen to divulge her taboo relationship with the Duchess of Polignac, played by Virginie Ledouyen.
“Diane and Léa have very opposite personalities,” notes Jacquot. “Not just different, but opposite. So I tried to put them together in scenes to create electricity that their opposition would engender.” One such scene occurs towards the end of the movie, when Sidonie disrobes in front of the Queen in a poignant display of love, loyalty, and subservience. And while the film’s brief moments of nudity have the effect of stripping off lome of the many layers of palace propriety, the director is quick to note that “the Queen never undressed herself, she had someone undress her.” And, of course, “nudity is still a costume.”
Costumes, as you might imagine, are an integral part of Farewell, My Queen. Jacquot tapped costume designer Christian Gasc for the role, working with him even before the script reached its final drafts. Kruger and Seydoux, no strangers to the fashion world themselves, were also involved in picking out the sumptuous silks and rich broderie that they wear while in character. Explains the director:
It’s extremely important with the actresses to have them enter into the character through the costume they’re wearing. They need to be involved in the costuming process, that they try them on, that they accept them, reject them, improve them. For me, it’s a way of integrating the character — the costumes needed to be so that to the actresses so they could live in them for two or more months day in and day out.
Especially since these are hardly easy cotton slips we are talking about. Even with Kruger’s penchant for Marie Antoinette-esque Chanel, the corseted gowns she wears in film look to weigh about as much of the actress herself.
And though the lush aesthetics of Farewell, My Queen are reason enough to merit a trip to the theater, Jacquot stresses that the heart of the story lies in the women’s inner turmoil: “The film takes the character of Marie Antoinette just at the point where she ceases to be a woman obsessed with fashion. It’s the moment where that changes for her. All of a sudden frivolity turns into tragedy. That’s what makes her an extremely pathetic character, and so neurotic at the same time.”