The chronicle of ill-fated French monarch Marie Antoinette has been recounted and replayed so often and in so many forms that it practically demands an innovative approach -- or, better yet, fresh themes drawn from the depths of the story -- to transcend its familiarities and reestablish its own vitality. Benoit Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen -- a costume drama set among the Gallic monarchy during the first three days of the French Revolution -- attempts to give this 18th century history lesson a revisionist look with a couple of unusual additions. While conceptually interesting on a surface level, these elements don't fully succeed at elevating this picture from a competent and well-mounted period drama into the masterpiece that Jacquot was obviously hoping for.
The movie's first stab at distinction is also its broadest. Per the approach of Chantal Thomas's 2002 source novel, Jacquot avoids placing Antoinette (Diane Kruger) center stage, and instead filters the tale through the eyes of Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young servant girl hired to be the queen's reader. The second unique inclusion in the picture is a lesbian romance between Marie and a gorgeous young Duchess (Virginie Ledoyen).
The servant perspective could ostensibly be fascinating if Jacquot and his co-scenarist, Gilles Taurant, established the character of Sidonie with adequate depth. Sadly, this doesn't happen. She remains a cipher -- infuriatingly aloof and cryptic. The filmmakers do bring off her obvious affection for the queen, and Seydoux keeps transcending her character's laconic dialogue and enigmatic motivations by giving us little flickers of insight into Sidonie's emotions, such as a beautiful moment when her eyes well up with tears in the queen's presence. But the film tips a hand to its crippling central weakness with one scene where another character actually limns Sidonie's opacity. "You tell us nothing [about you]…after four years [here]…I'm told nothing [about you]. I know nothing about you." To be sure, the picture does draw one strength by assuming Sidonie's perspective -- an unusual one. For a time, Jacquot uses her naiveté and innocence to revel in the confusion and chaos associated with the first several days of the revolution. But even if this onscreen pandemonium is mildly diverting, and fully convincing as docudrama, it can't overcome the obliqueness of the central character.
The sapphic components of the picture are even less successful. At first, it's moderately curious to see two sexy women burning for one another beneath garish 18th century European robes and powdered headdresses, and it's hard to deny the chemistry between Kruger and Ledoyen, but the relationship lacks some added element of depth that would put the affair under an audience microscope. This omission represents a serious lapse, because Jacquot has two wonderful opportunities to make the lesbian affair stranger, more complicated, and therefore more interesting -- and neglects to develop either. In particular, he could have taken the time to probe the obvious question of how these two royal Frenchwomen managed to conduct a homosexual affair with the knowledge of the entire court; in one sequence they parade around, embracing each other in full view of hundreds -- which is bizarre enough to practically demand elaboration. It would have also benefitted the film immeasurably if Jacquot had tied external dangers -- such as the encroaching threat of monarchial execution lingering in the air -- to the erotic pull between the women. Not only does this not happen, but Jacquot travels to the other extreme -- he has one of the women sacrificially send the other away, which completely drains the coupling of all sexual tension.
To be sure, there is nothing particularly inept in the picture: it's beautifully designed and costumed, and all of the actors perform satisfactorily. Kruger, in fact, is so much more emotionally nuanced and multidimensional than Kirsten Dunst was in the title role of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, that you really wish Jacquot had devoted more scenes to the character; she commands all of her sequences. But at this point, when we hear the story of Marie Antoinette, we want something to challenge us, to catch us off guard, to force us to look at these well-tread events in a new way. That doesn't happen here.