Of course you go to see this movie to see Versailles. Add in the ineffably gorgeous Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 90% and it's a no-brainer. So I went to see it yesterday. And it's good. . .enough. I can recommend it, but I have some qualms about the story it is telling.
In brief, the movie covers three days after the storming of the Bastille (July 14-18, 1789) from the perspective of a minor member of the staff at the royal palace. Sidonie Laborde is the Queen's Reader, summoned on occasions to read books and plays at the queen's whim. She has unparalleled intimacy when closeted with the queen, but is only called now and again. Then the French Revolution begins in earnest, with the storming of the Bastille, and the hundreds of people whose lives are at stake are caught with no reliable sources of information, no way to assess what is happening, and no way to protect themselves. It's a view of the privileged life of Versailles as a mixed bag of pros and cons. Sure, it's better than being poor and starving in the countryside, but it's an incredibly circumscribed and powerless life for most of the people who live there.
The first day shows a "typical" day at Versailles--Sidonie is called to read to Marie Antoinette, who is sleeping at Petit Trianon, her get-away on the grounds of the palace. Sidonie is hurried to the queen's bedroom, berated for her delay and chastised for her choice of material by the lady in waiting--only to be greeted by the queen with a bright smile and a compliment on how quickly she has arrived. Sidonie offers the Austrian sermon recommended by the lady in waiting (the funeral oration for Marie Theresa, who I believe is the queen's mother). Marie Antoinette pouts that it's too boring. Eventually Sidonie offers her own choice (which had been roundly discredited by the lady in waiting) and MA says while she likes that, a play would be better. We next see the queen (still in her nightgown, gorgeously disarrayed around her creamy shoulders) cuddled up to trade lines with Sidonie. However, MA is quickly distracted with ideas for a new dress design, fashion papers are called for, and eventually Sidonie is no longer on the queen's radar in the least. She is hustled out of the building and sent back to her quarters.
Given the prosaic nature of Sidonie's daily life, being on contact with the queen must have been a heady rush, like stumbling into a fairy tale. The queen even takes it upon herself to offer rosewood water to soothe Sidonie's mosquito bites, rubbing the balm into the sores herself, describing Sidonie's arms as "perfectly pudgy." How boring to go back to her small life, and small gossip, and rats and bugs and dark rooms. The next morning, however, there is electrifying news--the king was awakened at 2 a.m. and no one knows why. Could it be that he was sick? No, the cousin who sleeps at the foot of the king's bed has let it be known that it was not illness, it was a messenger. Could it be--? Perhaps it was--? The information trickles so slowly down to Sidonie's level, through different levels of rank and privilege, with cautions of secrecy and threats if the information leaks. Sidonie trades a chore (embroidering a dahlia for the queen) for information, and then gets further confirmation from the palace librarian.
But this only raises further questions: are the rebels headed to the palace? Are we safe? Will the royal family flee? Is this a time to worry about taking care of yourself, or is it best to put your trust in the king and cabinet? If you flee, will you be able to return or will it be viewed as a traitorous abandonment? Several nights are passed with courtiers and servants wandering the halls holding candles and seeking information and counsel. What to do? What will happen? Some choose to flee under cover of night; one lady steals from the queen's luggage as she packs, believing that the monarchy has now fallen. One woman hangs herself to escape the future.
Sidonie declares that she will stay with the queen--and finds herself used as bait by the queen. The Duchess de Polignac must escape, and Sidonie is ordered by the queen to dress as the Duchess and sacrifice herself if the coach is stopped. The duke and duchess are disguised as a maid and valet, and Sidonie is to take the fall if they are detained. Her devotion to the queen means nothing compared to the queen's devotion to her favorite. The scene where she is dressed in Polignac's dress is loaded with meaning--the dress will fit, because their bodies are nearly identical. The movie had previously shown us the duchess's nude, sleeping body, now we see Sidonie's, which is just as lovely, just as young and vital, and the cold uncaring expression in the queen's eyes says more about class privilege and resentment than the rest of the movie could. Sidonie is a lovely, as young, as vulnerable, as worthy of love as the duchess, and the queen does not--can not--see it because Sidonie is not a "real" person, only a pawn to secure the duchess's safety.
The escape is set in motion, and the carriage is stopped, but Sidonie successfully negotiates the encounter and they travel on to Switzerland and freedom--but Sidonie was the queen's reader. Who will she be now?
I loved seeing Versailles inhabited and getting glimpses of how the entire society functioned--we saw the entire hierarchy, from the king down to the rats in the garden. You saw how power concentrated in the absolute monarchs made everyone else powerless--a throwaway line about one aristocrat who lived in a "rat hole" when he had a beautiful chateau in the country, all for the "chance to see the king pass in the Hall of Mirrors twice a week." Sidonie and her friends are more or less prisoners of their rooms, since they need to be found when called for. So many people exist as merely cogs in the machine that is royal service--such a reckless waste of human talent and agency--in the service of lives of the king and queen that they themselves don't seem to enjoy either. It's just the way things are--and so the promise/threat of the oncoming revolution is not all terrible, if it frees all these people from the tyranny of The Way Things Are Done.
The problem I have with this movie, however, is that is suffers from a weird sort of "male gaze" problem. Ostensibly, this is the story of women--Marie Antoinette's attempts to save herself, her family, and her friends; Sidonie's awakening to the charms and horrors of royal privilege; the various paths taken by women under stress--the lady in waiting who steals the queen's clothing to finance herself, the woman who hangs herself to escape the coming revolution. The ways the various maids and female servants make lives for themselves--taking lovers, making marriages, exchanging information for favors. This is a story about women who are all in various ways and degrees powerless. When you run through the events of the movie, the men are generally seen at a distance, formal bodies in finery, but (with the exception of the palace librarian) not terribly relevant to these lives.
Yet, the women of this movie are oddly sexually performative, as though they are acting out a man's fantasy of how women would act in the absence of men, and it felt weirdly voyeuristic. Like it was the costume drama/historical classy version of the peep-hole scene in Porky's. Marie Antoinette brings up the Duchess de Polignac with Sidonie with the very oddly phrased "Have you ever desired a woman?" Pause, pause, pause so the audience can imagine that MA is actually coming onto Sidonie and that Sidonie is sexually attracted to MA. Then she goes on with the next lines, including how much she is attracted to Polignac's youth. Of course (thanks Wikipedia!) the real Polignac was six years older than Marie Antoinette--so we have this counter-factual monologue about sexual desire--there is no subtext, no hint that MA might be speaking about some other form of attraction. No, it's straight up hetero-normative description of sexual desire, with the mostly unacknowledged "fact" that it's a woman delivering the lines.
Later, MA sends Sidonie to fetch Polignac, but the duchess has taken opium to sleep and cannot be waked. Sidonie walks into the bedroom and finds the duchess sleeping nude, her arms over her head, her bedclothes artfully disarrayed, looking like a version of The Naked Maja, only asleep. For no credible reason that I could see, other than sexual jealousy, Sidonie pulls down the sheet to reveal the duchess's entire body, and gazes at it. After a discreet amount of ogling, the duchess rolls over, so we get her ass as well. At one point, Polignac comes sashaying up to Marie Antoinette in the Hall of Mirrors, in front of the entire assembled population of the palace, looking every bit like she's parading on a catwalk. It's a weirdly modern gait--again, highly performative, and then the two of them gaze into each other's eyes and walk off with their arms around each other. The court gasps. No ambiguity here!
So it felt like there were these two different narratives going on in parallel: the one that I was interested in, which was the nature of life at Versailles and the way that privilege did not equate with power; and this sort of heated sexual fantasy about lesbianism, decadence, and corsets.
Apparently, there was a lot of resentment at the time around Polignac precisely because she was such a favorite, and there were whispers that her relationship with MA was sexual, although there is no proof. But this movie doesn't toy with ambiguity--it is all but declared that the two women were lovers, and that Sidonie's fascination with MA had to do with sexual longing, rather than the many many other elements that one could imagine. I mean, this young, poor servant finds her life periodically punctuated by close association with the Queen of fricking France--a woman of such power, beauty, and wealth that it must have seemed like magic. To reduce the complex relationships of a sophisticated society into just sex feels reductive.
Of course, the specter of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette has to be addressed. Both were filmed on location at Versailles, both deal with the same historical characters, but they are very different movies. Farewell, My Queen is very claustrophobic, largely taking place in unadorned corridors, small rooms, poorly lighted locations. It's in many ways about the limits of absolute royal power, and what it takes to sustain and operate a system like Versailles. Coppola's movie focuses on the little girl inside the costume of Queen of France, striving to create sympathy for a very young woman thrust into a place that made no sense and where she was not accepted and so she tried to carve out some happiness for herself in the midst of the pomp and protocol of France. Farewell, My Queen really turns the story around to focus on the way these historical moments were experienced by those who really could only catch glimpses of it.
Worth seeing, very absorbing, but tonally a bit off-kilter. In French, with subtitles.
Photo credit: EW.com and Treasure for Your Pleasure