Off with their hairdos
When, in the late 1950s, an emergent generation of new French filmmakers took on the cinematic establishment of that country, one of the things they railed against was what we'd now call "heritage industry" movies. That meant the stiff, stuffy costume dramas about aspects of French history, and the critics who would become members of the French new wave wanted to loosen those stays, or preferably do without corsets at all and focus on the contemporary rather than the historical.
Of course, French costume drama didn't die. Instead it gradually got rejuvenated by the kind of techniques the new-wavers introduced into French and then world cinema. And it widened its thematic palette to include, especially, a sense of the sexual undercurrents of those long-ago times. That may have been a transformation that was due to happen anyway as the 1960s burgeoned, new-wavers or no, but it makes sense to the contemporary mind and eye that historical characters had sex lives – and that sex might have been part of their motivations, too.
Certainly, that is the line taken in Les adieux à la Reine, given the English title Farewell, My Queen (an echo of the hit Farewell, My Concubine?) and directed by Benoît Jacquot. This is his second movie set at the time of the French revolution, the other being his Sade, about the marquis of that name, who was legendarily imprisoned in the Bastille when it fell to the starving, angry people of Paris on July 14 1789. (In fact, it seems that at the time he was on temporary parole from that mini-castle, but never mind.)
Farewell, My Queen takes place in the few days before and after the fall of the Bastille, but it's not set in the Paris of popular upheaval. Rather, it is placed in the palace of Versailles, and the perspective is that of Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), reader to Queen Marie Antoinette.
Now the queen could read perfectly well herself, but naturally she had to have a minion who could read to her when she wanted. There is some wry humour in the movie to do with what Sidonie is expected to read to the queen on any given day, depending on the vacillations of her majesty's mood and the interpretations thereof by her closest attendants. At one point, we are allowed to imagine Sidonie reading Rousseau's Confessions to the queen – a delightful irony, in that Rousseau's thought was one of the shaping influences on the intellectual climate that fostered the revolution.
This Marie Antoinette, as played by Diane Kruger, is not quite the empty-headed late-teen reveller of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and the film is not so obsessed with the gilded luxury of life at Versailles. It does, however, give a pretty comprehensive portrait of how royalty lived and behaved, at least as seen by serving characters such as Sidonie. This is not so much history from below as history from below-stairs.
Sidonie herself is a fascinating character, a literate commoner and doubtless the beneficiary of all the book knowledge available in the queen's library. In a way, she's a notably modern character, yet torn by old allegiances. She loves books but she also loves the queen; books represent the future as limned by the encyclopedists and the Rousseaus (should that be "Rousseaux"?) of the world, but the queen represents the past that is about to be swept away.
If anything, the historical consciousness available to the characters in the movie is perhaps too extensive; it feels as though a little too much of the authorial awareness of how all this royal luxury would end on the scaffold has seeped into the characters' minds. We viewers, certainly, watch this narrative with a keen sense of what became of that particular royal family: it all takes place, as it were, under the shadow of the guillotine.
But that's one of the risks of historical dramas: we often know the ultimate end of these characters from the historical record. Sometimes that can rather remove the suspense, but in Jacquot's movie it suffuses the story with a powerful dramatic irony. It's hard not to look at Kruger's sharp features, never mind her gloriously bouffant hairdo, and imagine that head being lowered on to the block.
Seydoux's face makes a striking contrast to Kruger's; this is exceptional casting by looks. If there's something bladelike in the queen's face, Sidonie's has a softness and a roundness that speaks of innocence (as in the innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall), though her ever-observant eyes tell a different story: one of growing awareness, and of the sadness that comes with such knowledge of good and evil.
The looks count for a lot, but it would all be a bit vacuous if the performances didn't match up. Fortunately, they do. Kruger's brittle queen swings from petulant girlishness to tragic regality most effectively, but it's Seydoux who touches the heart with her curious mix of sensitivity and guile – the honest love that drives her into weird dissemblance. Sidonie's just a servant, but Seydoux takes the crown.
The French Film Festival runs at Nouveau cinemas in Cape Town (August 1 to 5), Johannesburg (August 8 to 12), Pretoria (August 9 to 12), Port Elizabeth (August 15 to 18) and Durban (August 23 to 26). It includes a mini-retrospective of the work of director Claire Denis (Beau Travail and others) and a focus on South African filmmaker Ramadan Suleman. Go to fff.org.za for schedules and more information.