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.
Léa Seydoux (most recently seen as the femme fatale in the latest "Mission Impossible" sequel) plays Sidonie Laborde, a soft-spoken member of the Queen's entourage in the summer of 1789. As frantic word flows into Versailles about the uprising in Paris, the tranquil bubble surrounding Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) threatens to burst. Sidonie, attracted and protective of a woman barely aware of her existence, grows increasingly isolated as forces build beyond her control.
An early scene makes clear Sidonie's unstated attraction to the Queen; from that point forward, she's a compelling embodiment of latent sexual identity. Seydoux's nuanced constant scowl provides a window into her despair, while Kruger credibly embodies the Queen as a giddy royalty addict unable to face the peril facing her luxurious existence (although airy lightheadedness does across as an exaggeration, especially compared to Sidonie).
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.
As news of the rebellion spreads throughout the castle, Sidonie finds herself lost in the shuffle, adding to the movie's distinctive approach to representing history writ small: No heads roll, but you hear about them, as passing references to the storming of Bastille and other conquests swoop by. While the fly-on-the-wall viewpoint brings a fresh angle to the rebellion, it never steals the spotlight from Sidonie's specific issues with the Queen — especially her burgeoning contempt when she realizes the object of the older woman's affections lie elsewhere.
Because "Farewell, My Queen" brings a momentous event down to the level of individual experience, it speaks directly to Sidonie's personal quandary. "The people are a fabric that is highly combustible," someone says, and while Sidonie never joins the opposition, she rises to her own internal calling. A natural follow-up to Jacquot's erotic thriller "Deep in the Woods," the new movie deals cautiously with Sidonie's inner journey; like the previous effort, it suffers from a cerebral quality that works against the possibility of turning Sidonie into a fully sympathetic figure.
By the end, she emerges as a shrewd heroine whose aggressive nature exists out of time. Jacquot, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gilles Tauran from Chantal Thomas' novel, hints at a fascinating conceit — namely, that it's possible to analogize the French Revolution to the greater sexual one nearly 200 years down the road.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Cohen Media has already picked up the film for a U.S. release, and it seems poised for a small, under-the-radar theatrical reception. However, solid reviews and additional exposure from Berlin (as well as upcoming festival dates) ensure the movie will find appreciative audiences and possibly awards season accolades as well.