Friday Editor’s Pick: Farewell, My Queen (2011)

by on February 25, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Fri March 2 at 6:30 and Sat March 3 at 1:30 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]

Playing Sun March 4 at 6:00 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Director Benoit Jacquot in-person at all screenings; in Q&A with Michel Ciment on 3/4

 
Brace yourself, its that time of year… Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (March 1 – 11), that is, the annual showcase of Gallic contemporary film that draws massive crowds of rabid Francopolies (we’ve seen physical altercations, no joke). This year’s 17th (!) edition is bigger and badder than ever, as the slate broadens to include documentaries and classics. Six highlights will also play in Brooklyn at BAM, where Positif editor and cinephile superstar Michel Ciment will host.
 

Director Benoit Jacquot appears at all screenings of the US Premiere of his French Revolution period piece, which opened last years’ Berlin Film Festival. He will sit down with Ciment at BAM for the only screening that’s not yet sold out – so act fast!
 
Geoffrey McNab for The Independent:

This is a very well observed study of social breakdown and decay set over four days in July 1789, seen from the perspective of palace servant Sidonie Laborde (the pouting young French actress Lea Seydoux.)
 
There are no tumbrels or guillotines. Court life in Versailles is carrying on just about as normal but we are always aware of the mounting sense of panic. Even as they adhere to courtly rituals, the courtiers can smell and feel that their way of life is coming to end. The costume and production design deliberately show the cracks beginning to appear. Versailles is magnificent but under director Benoit Jacquot’s close-up gaze, we see that everything is past its best. Even Marie Antoinette (played with a winning mix of haughtiness and vulnerability by Diane Kruger) has to fuss about her dresses and wigs. In stories of regime change and social meltdown, there are always comical moments. Jacquot throws in sequences of deaf old aristocrats scurrying down the corridors of the Palace, desperately trying to work out where their servants have gone. The threat of catastrophe doesn’t stop the romantic conspiracies. Even with the mob at the gates, Sidone is still trying to arrange knee-trembling trysts with the good looking Italian servant Paolo.
 
Jacquot, who adapted the film from the Chantal Thomas novel, 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.

 

The trailer is in French – but pretty pictures and Sapphic exploits!

 

Eric Kohn for Indiewire:

French director Benoit Jacquot tells stories with a strong command of cinematic form, but he might as well be a psychoanalyst: He puts repressed characters in close-up while their unstated desires slowly come to the fore. Berlinale opener “Farewell, My Queen” demonstrates this penchant with particular acuity, exploring the burgeoning French Revolution not from the perspective of the Queen but her official reader — a natural side character given a welcome starring role.
 
The personal dynamic is greatly enhanced by lavish period details: Jacquot makes this world feel very lived in before he tears it apart. The costume design never seems any more ostentatious than the era. Cinematographer Romain Winding borrows a page from “Barry Lyndon” with a heavy reliance on candlelight to draw out the ominous mood of the Queen’s castle, where nearly all of the action takes place.
 
While Jacquot makes his setting habitable, he never luxuriates in it. The antidote for anyone perturbed by Sophia Coppola’s candy-colored fantasy “Marie Antoinette,” Jacquot uses a shrewdly minimalist approach, at once capturing the vast overabundance of affluence that surrounds the Queen in every corner of Versailles while emphasizing reaction shots and dialogue so that the architecture isn’t just a framing device; it represents a state of mind.

 

 

Guy Lodge for In Contention:

“Farewell, My Queen,” has all the external hallmarks of the kind of over-starched Europudding spectacle that is routinely tapped to open major European festivals, so as to bring out some attractive crossover stars to cut the proverbial ribbon while still ensuring that nobody will remember it by closing night: untaxingly familiar history, rolling hectares of berry-hued silk, a puffily grave title, Diane Kruger with an indeterminate accent, that sort of thing. Who we have instead, crucially and rather rewardingly, is Benoît Jacquot, a higher-brow French veteran who, while not the most aggressively distinct stylist, has cultivated a recognizable stamp of terse elegance across contemporary and historical fare alike. He’s as reassuringly calm a visual and narrative disciplinarian as you could want overseeing the shrill discord of Versailles in 1789, and it’s actually his most prosaic instincts that guide the most striking stretches of this portrait of the cake-eating Queen’s fall from grace.

 
Measured and largely music-free, early scenes map out the daily routine of the Queen’s official reader, Sidonie (the affectingly quivery Lea Seydoux, looking more than ever like a foie gras-fed Kate Moss), with an engagingly practical interest in her actual profession, keeping the gauzy, covetous panning shots of palace treasures to a minimum and instead zeroing in on the miniature everyday power plays between the variously worshipful female underlings of Diane Kruger’s fulsome, flighty, faux-patrician Marie A. First lady among the servants is Gabrielle (Virginie Ledoyen), whose duties seem limited to wanly enduring her Queen’s giggly, groping infatuation. Seydoux’s peachily impassive face makes it hard to discern whether she’s as uncomfortable with these open displays of girl-girl desire as she is out of her mind with jealousy; either way, her slyly ambitious marking of Gabrielle’s status has a cruel payoff as revolution brews, lending the whole the tight causality of a doom-laden fable. No heads roll in this petite fillet of history; none need to.

 

 

Jonathan Romney for Screen Daily:

Often regarded with critical suspicion, the genre of historical drama gets an honourable dust-down with Farewell My Queen (Les Adieux à la Reine), an Upstairs Downstairs-style story of Versailles in the days of the French Revolution – in other words, the picture of a magnificent but rot-riddled vessel about to go down like the Titanic.
 
It’s when the film takes us backstage behind the public drama that it’s most effective, Romain Winding’s superb photography making the most of candle- and fire-lit chiaroscuro, and playing silk and satin luxury against the drab severity of Versailles’ stoneworks (the film is partly shot in the real palace).
 
This is a solid, sometimes provocative piece, although substantially more old school than the knowingly hip revisionism of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

 

Jessica Kiang talks to Leydoux, also for Indiewire:

But more was added to the characterisation than existed on the page, mostly as a result of Sidonie playing much younger in the film than in the book. Director Benoit Jacquot asked for a certain gracelessness and clumsiness in Seydoux’s performance “… this is part of her youth, she’s not super sophisticated” said the actress. And it’s true, there’s something refreshing about seeing a period drama set in the splendour of a Royal court, in which our protagonist trips a lot and scratches at her mosquito bites. This relatability was absolutely a concern of the actress as it’s a quality that the corsets and ancient etiquette can alienate. “It helps to play [the part], but I wanted her to be not too stuck in her costume. Usually when you see period films, it’s something very theatrical. I wanted her to be modern, that she has something that she could be from today…,” she said. “To be not too theatrical, that was the big challenge and also because I am the girl who’s watching in the film, it’s difficult sometimes to be filmed just observing.”

 

 
Kiang also talks to Krueger:

A new twist on a familiar story or not, Kruger was well aware of the pitfalls of portraying a historical figure who has has so many previous onscreen iterations. “The perception of Marie Antoinette is already so established. That’s the danger of playing a historical figure because people have an opinion about her and have already judged her… [from] movies that have been made about her,” she said. “You can clearly see that [Sofia Coppola] was fascinated with Marie Antoinette and that she very much was of the opinion that she was unjustly done by. For this movie it was irrelevant what I thought about it. I wanted to connect to her on a human basis…I wanted her to be more complex than just the symbol of what people think Mary Antoinette is or was.”
 
We identified Kruger’s performance as one of the film’s highlights. She may not be the central character, but her lesser screen time belies the impact of her arc. “I think that the script was beautifully crafted. The first scene you see her as most people would assume she was, you know, very aloof, frivolous, doesn’t have a care in the world, worrying about her dresses. But then you also see her very vulnerable and very real and then you see her become the Queen at the end of the day. She’s quite extreme. She’s a little borderline. I think she was a little crazy at the end, you know?”

 

 
Fabien Lemercier for Cineuropa:

Benoît Jacquot takes on this historical upheaval, already explored by Scola, Wajda, or even Rohmer, from royalty’s perspective, or more specifically from that of queen Marie-Antoinette, who was presented in a completely different way by Sofia Coppola in 2006. He offers up an esthetic synthesis of several of his stylistic characteristics: his love of literary adaptations (Farewell, My Queen is the tenth out of 20 films), his attraction for costume dramas, and his fascination for portraits of actresses. The film’s main actresses, Léa Seydoux and Diane Kruger, here join the ranks of the filmmaker’s muses, that have included Huppert, Le Besco, Deneuve, Adjani, Kiberlain and Virginie Ledoyen, who also features in Farewell, My Queen. Farewell, My Queen is the brilliant mise-en-scène of a dying world in the sumptuous setting of Versailles.
 
Farewell, My Queen is beautifully shot, follows a very good rhythm, and cleverly plays on the contrasts of dazzling lighting. The film revisits history with a deliberate modernity embodied Léa Seydoux’s performance. Jacquot delves into the past without falling into the traps of caricature or glossed-over reconstitution, and the result is both lively and informative. It is, overall, a film marked with the seal of talent.

 

 

Lemercier also interviews Jacquot for Cineruopa:

How did you go about adapting the novel by Chantal Thomas into a screenplay?
Benoît Jacquot: What is important for me in a screenplay, even if it is for a period far back in time, is to be able to make all that I shoot and all that I ask of the actors as immediate as possible to an audience today. So everything that is anecdotal, everything that intimately reflects the life of the characters and the situations in which they evolve, tends to give immediacy, a life to things, that makes them very close, even if they happened centuries ago. It’s very similar with music. The composer Bruno Coulais and I have now worked together on several films, and we have a rather special way of working, as most of the music is almost entirely composed before shooting. It [music] is therefore an integral, almost organic, part of the film that I want to make. I know more-or-less what the music will be, when it will be, and for how long, before I even start directing. For me, that’s very important.

 

How did you manage to ensure that your actresses gave modern interpretations of a story set in 1789 ?
It’s all in the way of shooting, the way of welcoming your actors – here actresses – so that they are not introduced into a world from the past. Even if they are in costume and in another time’s setting, I try to give them the feeling that there is no rupture between the time in which they are acting and the time that they are supposed to represent. This permeates through to the way of shooting, and linking scenes. I try to create a sort of evidence in things, meaning that they happen this way because they have to happen this way – exactly like when you live in the present. The actresses act in the present not in the past. This is why the film gives the impression of being in the present. There are two ways of making a historical film. Either as a historian, like an antiques dealer, which can be very beautiful, with great efforts to show the past as it was. Or – and this is my way – you can try to make the past as contemporary as possible, without anachronism. It was great, for example, that Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virginie Ledoyen acted in their costumes, not as if they were wearing costumes, as if they were in disguise or in camouflage, but as if they are wearing the dress that is theirs at that point in time.

 
In 2011, we witnessed the end of many reigns and dynasties around the world. To what extent did this atmosphere influence you?
It’s practically the point of the film, its subject. It is not even a question of influences, the film is about that. I am personally a great fan of end of reigns. In obviously very different proportions and perspectives according to each place and situation, all ends of reigns are alike. Those in power inevitably hang on to it, whatever the ideology or social class that they come from. Ends of reigns especially in their last days, days of panic as the ship sinks fast, since the dawn of time have many points in common that one can try to identify. It has to be said that for France and the rest of Europe, the exact days of Farewell, My Queen were absolutely decisive.

 

 
Cole Abaius for Film School Rejects:

The wonderfully un-stuffy film stars and is told through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who acts as a cipher for the manic last few days of Marie Antoinette’s (Diane Kruger) reign in the late 1700s. It’s Laborde’s story, meaning it’s the story of a voyeur who watches from doorjambs as the business of being extravagantly wealthy and powerful becomes not only meaningless, but fatal. The vantage point is a bold angle that comes with its own set of challenges. Instead of following the leader, it makes Versailles an insular cocoon where rumors float down candle-lit hallways on sleepless nights and the people trapped by their own excess are revealed more through reaction than action. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s one that Jacquot and company handle with something close to greatness.
 
If the perspective is one reason this film bucks the period trend, its pacing and aggressive nature are real reasons to praise it. This is no dry wheeze where polite society hems and yawns through subtext and things unspoken. It’s direct. It’s nasty. Beyond forcing the main perspective and anchor into the lower class, it pivots off of a vision of perfection that is rarely seen. Opulence is hard to take seriously when it demands that dozens of loudly-dressed patrons shuffle-run down the hall in order to appear poised and proper like statues who have always stood in the place where the King and Queen are about to emerge.It’s a desperate awkwardness born from trying to force things to appear a certain way. Instead of being played for laughs, it’s more often played for pity.
 
A fantastic piece of period work that doesn’t follow any of the rules that make costume dramas so drab and dull. It’s innovative without being crudely rebellious, and the acting on display is formidable and incendiary. It goes without saying that the production design, make-up and costuming is strong – that’s the very least a film like this can do. What’s really magical about Farewell, My Queen is that it gives the audience something to do other than stare at the scenery. It’s thrilling. A rare example of something antique feeling genuinely brand new.

 

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