Four days before the French Revolution arrived at the gates of Versailles, it was business as usual. The queen was preoccupied with fashion and the romantic intrigues of her aristocratic attendants, the maids gossiped about their masters’ dalliances and their own, and the main annoyances were the swamp-bred mosquitoes and water rats overrunning the palace.
This is the perspective on court life of Marie Antoinette’s devoted servant, Sidonie Laborde. As we follow her through the monarchy’s abrupt collapse, Farewell, My Queen gives us intimate, unflaggingly energetic history as seen from the servants’ quarters.
The relationship between Sidonie (Léa Seydoux, Midnight in Paris) and her queen (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds) is a composite of duty, warm affection, pettiness and ambiguous sensuality. Her Majesty, still girlish though no longer youthful, sensuously rubs ointment on the mosquito-bitten forearm of her lovely lady in waiting, proclaiming it “perfectly pudgy.”
It is Sidonie’s duty to read poems, plays and essays aloud while Marie leafs through fabric swatches and fashion illustrations. With Sidonie at her side, the queen enjoys a semblance of human contact without the obligation to contribute. Marie favors her with smiles, hugs and compliments. Sidonie humbly devotes herself to the queen’s amusement even as word of revolt on the streets of nearby Paris begins to flit around the servants’ quarters.
Director Benoit Jacquot stages several spectacular scenes involving crowds filling the palace’s access corridors, groping along by candlelight as they share baffling half-truths and wild rumors about the upheaval that is soon to engulf them.
The plot is discursive, with detours into the love lives of castle guards and gondoliers, a dance scene and heaps of political skullduggery. As danger draws nearer to Versailles, Marie makes Sidonie a dress-up decoy intended to save Marie’s beloved Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (ravishing Virginie Ledoyen).
The wellborn beauties share an intense emotional bond that stops just short of the lesbianism that anti-royalist pamphleteers of the time attributed to them. We feel the pang of the queen’s transformation into an unfeeling pragmatist as sharply as poor Sidonie. Paraphrasing Mel Brooks, it’s not always good to be the queen, and downright heartbreaking to be her devoted handmaiden.
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