“Les Adieux à la Reine” (“Farewell, My Queen”), a 2002 Prix Fémina award-winning novel by Chantal Thomas adapted to film by Benoît Jacquot, details Versailles in the four day window between July 14 and 17, 1789, the day of the storming of the Bastille in Paris to when the royalty fled the palace.

Farewell, My Queen

At the Michigan
Cohen Media Group

Shadowing the chaos at the royal palace consequent to the storming of the Bastille, the film adheres very closely to the perspective of a historically inconsequential character, the “reader” for Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger, “National Treasure”). Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux, “Inglourious Basterds”) plays a reserved, but devoted servant to the Queen, conducting herself with personality so subtle it seems absent. The Queen, capricious and appallingly French, is a weirdly unreadable entity throughout the film, aggrandized through the eyes of the audience and from the perspective of young Sidonie. The film, spoken in French and presented with subtitles, is an unusual compromise between a foreign period film and a Hail Mary at American movie-quality entertainment. The pass feels incomplete.

Though the choice to make our eyes see through Sidonie instead of any member of the in-crowd is an audacious and thoughtful attempt to trade dramatic potential for genuine reenactment, the trade functions only to frustrate the audience, to keep them waiting for the juicy content that never arrives. The audience is provided with two scenes of full frontal, but the lesbian overtones of the narrative leave much to be desired. Even to an audience member happy to subscribe to the period gender roles adopted, the sexual tension is disappointingly asexual, favoring instead effusive and melodramatic dialogue. This movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, but still manages to stereotype women, particularly lesbian women; yet, apparent shortcomings may have more to do with the cast being constrained to act in period manner. It’s difficult to tell why we don’t care, but we don’t.

The set is Versailles itself, making it phenomenally realistic, and, of course, gorgeous. It seems, at times, that Jacquot uses his space better than his actors; the most thrilling scenes are those contingent on atmosphere for mood. Not once in this film is it a distinct pleasure to hear any character say any line ever, which is three strikes in and of itself. The principle tenors of the movie were subdued terror and hyper-feminine frivolity, and no amount of beauty can excuse the juxtaposition of constant anxiety with constant trifling. It makes the story no fun to follow.

If one were deeply interested in French historical fiction, gender concepts and fashion, this film might be interesting to examine on some deeper levels. But it easily fails to meet the terms of the unspoken contract moviegoers have with movies, which is to prompt emotional engagement and put magic in stories. As lovely as this movie arguably is, and despite the relentless orchestral tracks meant to cue suspense from behind, it does not do any of that.

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