Farewell, My Queen
In the raft of pamphlets that littered the streets of Paris in the years before the storming of the Bastille, one of the most common themes was the purported same-sex love affairs of the Austrian-born queen, Marie-Antoinette. Canard by political hacks; or based in fact?
Like so much about the French Revolution, so much messier than our own, historians have yet to come to a firm agreement. Once asked his opinion of the French Revolution, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin reportedly replied, "I don’t know. It’s not over yet.
The rumors probably picked up steam because the queen was beautiful, while the king was ugly, and it was well known that their marriage was not consummated for the first few years (King Louis XVI had to wait for his visiting brother-in-law, the Austrian emperor, to explain all the plumbing).
The bigger reason, however, was the queen’s Austrian roots; her loyalty was always called into question. Besides, then as now, lesbian sex among beautiful, aristocratic women made for good copy.
"Farewell My Queen" is a French film from noted director Benoît Jacquot based on a novel of the same name that takes these rumors at their word. The Marie Antoinette (played with subtlety by the gorgeous German actress Diane Kruger) we see here is a lonely woman trapped in an arranged marriage who only feels passion for Gabrielle de Polignac, a trampy beauty who uses the queen’s ardor for worldly gain.
Even if there were any truth to the affair between the two women, the open affection the queen displays for de Polignac in this movie would be ridiculous at extremely etiquette-obsessed Versailles, where even the king’s bowel movements were choreographed as a spectacle among senior courtiers.
But that is far from the most far-fetched notion presented in this film that does a good job of showing the upstairs/downstairs dynamics that were necessary in running an enterprise as huge as the French court but is otherwise not so great on the actual historical record.
The revolution, here compressed into a few days following the fall of the Bastille, is seen through the eyes of a low-born lady-in-waiting who reads to the queen, who spends all of her time in her relatively modest private chambers. This is nonsense; the king and queen were almost never alone, and Marie Antoinette was very involved in politics as well as the intrigues that kept the palace machinery humming.
She also was a very hands-on parent, especially by the standards of her class. What the film does get right is the rot at the heart of Versailles, a rot symbolized here by the rats in the fountains that dot the gardens and provide drinking water for the inhabitants.
As the reader, Léa Seydoux has an innocent beauty reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson in her "Girl with a Pearl Earring" phase. The sets and costumes are sumptuous, as are the carriages and even the horses.
But it takes more than faithful reproduction of things to get a historical film right, and this one gets way too much wrong. Still, as yet another look at a queen who continues to fascinate, "Farewell My Queen" gives us a fresh take on Marie Antoinette that is far more daring than Sofia Coppola’s anachronistic version but probably less accurate than the MGM classic.