There’s a reason why French director Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell My Queen” (July 13) was chosen to open the Berlin and San Francisco Film Festivals, as well as making its North American debut at COLCOA this week. The period movie, set in 1789 on the verge of Bastille Day, is an intimate and sexy period spectacle that takes us backstage at Versailles and into territory Sofia Coppola was not willing to go. Jacquot was entranced by Chantal Thomas’s 2002 novel, a feminist take on Marie Antoinette told from the point-of-view of “la lectrice de la reine,” who reads books to her queen. Jacquot loved the idea of making a film from a feminine point-of-view at a time when most films focus on men. (Trailer below.)
While Coppola was looking at fifteen years in the life of Antoinette, Jacquot takes four days at the end of her life. This time, the Queen (Diane Kruger) is madly in love–not with her neglectful husband, King Louis the XVI (Xavier Beauvois), with whom she has two children–but with best chum Gabrielle di Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).
Watching her queen’s reaction to the unfolding Revolution is her loyal reader, Sidonie Laborde, played by Lea Seydoux (“Midnight in Paris”). Laborde is a much younger and more fetching wench than the 50ish reader in Thomas’s book. Seydoux reminded Jacquot of someone who could have been painted by Renoir. “She brought this carnal dimension,” he says. “She has incontrovertible sex appeal.”
The lesbian slant on Antoinette’s passion for Polignac “was a probability,” says Jacquot. “It is not certain, but we know through the historical archives and letters of the period that women in aristocracy in that time exalted the exchange between women. Using your imagination, you could go much further and take a more intimate angle. In my point-of-view, why not?”
Jacquot, who has made numerous documentaries as well as period films, many of them for television, brings a contemporary feel to the filmmaking. “I look at the film as if it’s happening now,” he says, “not in the past, through the actors.” He dressed them in accurate Christian Gasc costumes (gorgeously Oscar-worthy) and placed them in Versailles (the back rooms were done, like Coppola’s, in castles nearby), and asked them to inhabit those people “until the costume is no longer a costume.”
And he shot fast; his cameramen rushed through dark corridors following the characters with digital Steadicams, over-the-shoulder documentary-style.
Like Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” Jacquot was seeking a natural light aesthetic, which was easier to achieve with today’s digital cameras than it was on film in 1975. “I think Kubrick asked questions similar to ones I’ve asked myself,” he says. “The question of directing theatrical cinema is a question of real cinematography. How did women and men live in a time when the main lighting was candles, when you can’t see further ahead than five meters? I bet you the budget on ‘Barry Lyndon’ in candles was one week of shooting on my film.”
This was his first move to digital. “Now I will always do digital films,” he says. “There’s really no point in 35 mm. Every theater in France is digital. All the print labs have closed down as well. It’s the technique now. And technically we can do things you could not do with 35. Two years ago, this film would not have been possible. Things are changing quickly.”