Sunday, February 24, 2013

Holding Court with Marie-Antoniette

I'm not even sure of the context anymore, but I recently learned of a movie called Farewell, My Queen, which is set during the French revolution. The basic synopsis sounded interesting (though in retrospective, somewhat misleading), and I'm sucker for anything set at Versailles so I decided to give it a try.

Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux a la Reine originally) is a French film based on a popular novel of the same name. Starring Lea Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virginie Ledoyen, the film picked up several prestigious awards when it was released last year. The movie tells the story of Sidonie Laborde, who is the official reader to the queen. Essentially, she is only a servant, but one of a slightly higher caste than, say, a chamber maid. Because of this, she holds some more privileges than her peers (notably a lavish gold clock that sits in her otherwise bare room) and shares a bit of intimacy with the queen, in that she gets to sit near her in the queen's private quarters while reading aloud to her.

The movie starts out on July 14, 1789, a day of infamy in French history for the Bastille was stormed that day, officially starting the revolution in France and years of bloodshed. Because news traveled slowly at that time, everything on this day is as normal. But by the following day, rumors are spreading about what has happened in Paris and fears are being stoked. The movie covers only a few days' time, so we don't see the Reign of Terror or anything more extreme than the dawning realizations of those at Versailles that their lives are about to be irrevocably changed. But the movie is not so much about history or its often attendant misery; indeed, The Independent's review of the movie notes that the director "doesn’t have any grand political statements to make. He is not trying to make a sweeping melodrama either. His approach is more like that of an anthropologist, studying a tribe in its death throes. The result is quietly fascinating." But perhaps most glaringly, the movie is rather the story of a love triangle. For Sidonie is in love with Marie-Antoinette, Marie-Antoinette is in love with the courtier Gabrielle (the Duchess of Polignac), and Gabrielle ... well, nobody really knows her feelings but let's just say she intends to curry favor with the queen for as long as possible.

We see all of this through the eyes of Sidonie, who gives us quite an insider's view of the palace of Versailles. Holding the position in the hierarchy that she does, she allows us to see the servants' quarters, with their rather drab existence and petty squabbles often based on things they've overheard from their masters and mistresses, as well as the inner chambers of the queen and her court, with their opulence, frippery, vanity, and still more rumors (although usually more substantiated at this point). Sidonie's place in the latter is certainly more uneasy though, and we frequently see her view of things from a position of eavesdropping while hiding in an opportune place. This dual perspective gives off a Upstairs, Downstairs sort of vibe, although the movie also reminded me a bit of The Girl with the Pearl Earring in terms of ambiance. Of course, the movie this one is more frequently compared to is Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and it should be noted this is a very different film. I don't want to pit one against the other as they both have their highlights, but they vary much in terms of style and substance.

Despite being a rather slim movie in terms of plot points, I found that I was totally engrossed in this film from beginning to end. Others have referred to it as a character study, but I think that explanation is a bit misleading also. As one of Sidonie's fellow servants notes at one point, Sidonie's life is mystery as she's held back all kinds of information about herself, including where she's from, who her parents are, etc. - and the viewer suddenly comes to realize the same thing. We know nothing about Sidonie beyond her love of books and her loyalty to Marie-Antoinette. The duchess is given comparatively so little screen time that we learn few details about her also and must surmise all of her motivations. Marie-Antoinette gives us a bit more, divulging some of her secret feelings to Sidonie at one point, and sharing knowing looks here and there that seem to indicate her frame of mind. But how much the queen really feels for Sidonie seems variable at a moment's notice and how much she's aware of Sidonie's love for her is something we're left guessing about, wondering if she's milked Sidonie's feelings for her own gain or if she is just completely unaware of them. If the former, this adds to the feeling that the movie left (for me at least) that the queen was a rather nasty person. History has been unkind to Marie-Antoinette, a woman who - no matter what her faults - was given an unfair amount of the blame for an entire country's myriad problems. Modern historians and others have been more sympathetic to the queen, and she did have her supporters even back in the 18th century, such as the artist Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Vigee-Lebrun tells one of the most touching stories about Marie-Antoinette, in which the queen insisted on picking up Vigee-Lebrun's dropped paintbrushes for her, something quite unexpected for the lavish monarchy of 18th century France and not what you'd imagine for the Marie-Antoinette depicted here. This movie instead portrayed her as quite incapable of doing anything for herself and as rather self-absorbed, although admittedly she does have some slightly sympathetic moments.

Beyond the three main leads, there are numerous other characters who come in and out of the film from both the occupants of the royal court and the people who serve them. It was a bit tough at times to remember who all everyone was and how they related to one another, but it was manageable. One of the more notable side characters was Madame Campan, the head lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, who probably sees the most (both literally and metaphorically) of what is happening between the queen and those around her. She's a complicated woman who can seem both harsh and sympathetic to Sidonie at turns, but ultimately appears to be one of the most honest and moral people at Versailles. The mob of angry French people, although hardly seen, is a character in itself, causing all the other characters to worry and despair from a distance. Of course, the benefit of hindsight makes everything all the more ironic for the viewer who knows the fate of the royalty depicted here and all their court.

With such a female-heavy cast and focus, this movie is a rather interesting one to dissect in terms of its portrayal of women. We see three very different women here - one who appears to be obsessed with power and privilege (Gabrielle); another with love and loyalty (Sidonie); and another who is perhaps a mix of both (Marie-Antoinette). None of them seem to be sad stereotypes of frail and fragile women, but then again none of them seems to stand out as a particularly tough and independent woman. In a way, I rather like that for there is already no end of historical fiction out there in which someone tries to re-write history with a 21st-century ideal of a strong woman at the helm. These women seemed more realistic with a mix of good and bad about them. It's suggested that all of these women have at least some element of same-sex attraction within them, and it's worth noting that even in the 18th century Marie-Antoinette and the Duchess de Polignac were rumored to be lovers, despite no evidence supporting that beyond the queen's obvious fondness for the duchess, which very well may have been entirely platonic. For the most part in this movie, the erotic undercurrent of homosexuality isn't played too heavily or for the benefit of the male view, even if the (male) director told the press that he chose Lea Seydoux to play Sidonie because she "has incontrovertible sex appeal" and "brought this carnal dimension" to the film or if one reviewer thought the director took "a completely gratuitous interlude to let the camera ogle Ledoyen, lying in bed as God made her." I personally didn't find this scene gratuitous as it told us something about Sidonie's character and her envy, but there were other scenes where the director seemed to linger unnaturally long on a woman's body part - it wasn't just Sidonie's heaving bosom in a scene when she sits dangerously close to the queen as they take turns reading lines from a romantic play, but other odd choices like Marie-Antoinette's bare feet in a very serious scene that seals Sidonie's fate.

Otherwise, the cinematography of the film is excellently done without being overstated. Set in Versailles and filmed mainly on location, the palace feels like a character in itself -- or perhaps it just felt that way because I could recognize some of the areas, such as the Hall of Mirrors, from my visit there several years ago. Either way, the palace of Versailles leaves for stunning visuals with all its gold gilding, marble floors and columns, sparkling chandeliers and mirrors, and well-manicured extensive grounds. Of course, we also see the seedier side of Versailles (if you can call it that) with the tiny and sparsely decorated servants' quarters. The musical score was perfectly fitting to the tone of the movie, the period costumes were gorgeously lavish, and the acting was all top-notch, even in the minor characters. The ending of the movie was perhaps a bit "huh" rather than conclusive but as another blogger points out, "Because the film is a character study and not one of the climactic biopics to which some of us are accustomed, the story feels unfinished in the end, if only because the action ends where the action of most of these types of films begins." This was not necessarily the best movie I've seen regarding unrequited love or the French revolution or whatever element you want to pull out as the most relevant in this film, but I quite enjoyed it overall and would recommend it for those who are Francophiles, enjoy historical costume dramas, or who just like an understated movie that's more about characters interacting with one another than about non-stop action.

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