“Farewell, My Queen”
Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, may be best remembered for her outrageous clothes, lavish self-indulgence, and her controversial affairs with men and women. But her eventual fall from grace and gruesome death – she was beheaded during The French Revolution – that lift her story out of mere curiosity to a level of fascination not associated with any other royal figure. Her life has been captured in eight feature films plus a couple of documentaries. The latest in this list is France’s distinguished filmmaker Benoît Jacquot who tells the queen’s story through the eyes of the servant class. Recently out on DVD, Jacquot’s ‘Farewell, My Queen’ makes a fascinating double-bill with Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film ‘Marie Antoinette’ starring Kirsten Dunst as the doomed queen.
The opening shot of Coppola’s film tells us that we are to not take it seriously: Marie Antoinette is sprawled on a chaise lounge, getting a pedicure, colorful cakes stacked around her from floor to ceiling, as she picks a big dollop of frosting from one of the cakes, licks it sensuously, looks at the camera and smiles impishly. Later in the film, this Marie Antoinette denies having said her now famous quote, “Let them eat cake.”
But cake – with generous frosting – is what we get in Coppola’s film. Her Marie Antoinette is buried under stunning set design, gorgeous cinematography, and eye-popping costumes (while both films are a costume designer’s dream, in the French version there is a certain green dress that becomes an important prop in the story). Scene after monotonous scene shows the royal family’s rituals and protocol. When a frustrated Antoinette finally exclaims, “This is ridiculous!” we have to agree and beg for the film to move on to something else. The film does move on, however, to Coppola’s other fixation: the queen’s sex life, or lack thereof. Again, scene after scene we watch the queen unsuccessfully trying to arouse her husband King Louis XVI (a lost and embarrassed Jason Schwartzman).
After the birth of her first child – it took seven years for the couple to reproduce – Antoinette retires to her own private chateau on the river to raise and educate her daughter and children born later. Only then does the film begin to breathe and allows us a glimpse at a woman freeing herself from the stifling tradition and demands of royal duty, constantly on guard because she was always seen as the outsider, and plagued by gossip and lies. But Coppola’s film is stymied by its obsession with the glamour and glitz of Antoinette’s life, the jarring soundtrack, and the heavy look-at-these-crazy-Europeans tone. This tone could have freed Coppola to comment on the queen’s myriad relationships with other women but she studiously avoids stepping into that territory. The film ends at the height of The French Revolution with hasty and clumsy scenes of the royal family’s escape from Versailles before the palace was raided by a rioting mob.
Jacquot zeroes in on these final three days before the escape. When the news of the storming of Bastille reaches Château de Versailles, panic sets in and most of the aristocrats and servants desert the palace, leaving the royal family practically alone. This story is told from the point of view of Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), the queen’s reader. Sidonie is undeniably loyal to the queen and insists on staying with her while the royal family plans an escape route. The queen, however, is caught between her loyalty to her husband and to her dearest friend (or lover), the Duchesse Gabrielle de Polignac. Gossip and suspicion over the nature of the queen’s relationship with the duchesse makes them both a target of assassination by the revolutionaries. The queen uses Sidonie’s loyalty to hatch a plot to help the duchesse escape. A betrayed and devastated Sidonie honors this plot but also uses it as her own escape and therein comes the farewell implied in the film’s title.
In Jacquot’s film, the duchesse (a captivating Virginie Ledoyen) is central to the plot. Coppola completely dilutes the command the duchesse had over the queen, instead showing the duchesse (a frivolous Rose Byrne) as just one among the queen’s gaggle of girlfriends. Jacquot’s duchesse strides in and out, aware of the disapproving stares and gossip from the aristocrats but confident of her influence with the queen.
The best part about watching these two films together is seeing what Kirsten Dunst and Diane Kruger bring to the role of Marie Antoinette. As flawed a film as ‘Marie Antoinette’ is, Dunst gives a terrific performance, her second such triumph under Coppola’s direction following the 1999 film ‘The Virgin Suicides’. Kruger is provocative and mercurial as the older version of Antoinette, flipping from majestic to vulnerable, belligerent to petulant with remarkable ease, never once making the queen a caricature.
Without a doubt, Jacquot’s queen sees the duchesse as more than just a friend. “I want to have you always by my side,” she pleads with the duchesse. “Let me inhale one last time the scent of your youth,” she whispers while desperately clinging to the duchesse before they part. Coppola’s Antoinette, on the other hand, has no such scenes of longing and intimacy with the duchesse. “She’s fun! She makes me laugh,” is all that this version of Antoinette can declare. Sounds like the kind of reaction Coppola wanted out of her audience. I recommend you go for the pathos – and seductive bisexuality – of the French version instead.