Friday, 10 February 2012

'Farewell My Queen' Berlinale (Competition) review:

Set within the walls of Versailles palace in the first days of the French Revolution, this dimly lit, distractingly handheld camera reliant period drama casts the beautiful Lea Seydoux (recently seen as a ruthless assassin in 'Mission: Impossible') as a lady in waiting whose loyalty to Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) is unwavering and - equally - unappreciated.

From the perspective of Seydoux's Sidonie, we observe major events at a distance, often from palace windows, as King Louis XVI and his entourage consider their response to the storming of the Bastille - prancing about theatrically in the forecourt, wearing wigs and striking poses only French aristocracy could get away with. Through Sidonie we witness as hysteria grips the palace, but whilst there is much talk of nobles fleeing to the countryside in panic, there is little suggestion that any suspects they are living out the final days of an established order. As though this is the whim of a mob who will see sense.

For instance, Sidonie and her friends are still harassed to perform their most frivolous duties for indulgent masters. For her part, she's continually being pestered to deliver an embroidered pattern demanded by the queen - though her majesty has other things on her mind, having fallen deeply in love with a lady of the court who treats her with a level of disdain to which she is unaccustomed.

To see the monarch treated so casually is scandalous to Sidonie: a woman who has sacrificed not only her life but also any sense of personal identity in order to remain close to Marie Antoinette. Though whether this affection is sexual is left entirely ambiguous. What's not in doubt is that the spoiled, self-absorbed queen does not hold Sidonie in the same affection, ultimately seeing the girl as another instrument of her will.

This is a very different picture of Marie Antoinette than that we are used to seeing, with context given for why she was so despised by her people, beyond jealousy at her decadence. Here we are given insight into her political dealings as she leads a political faction within the palace who wish to crush the rebellion at the earliest stages, proposing use of a mercenary army against the people of Paris. My knowledge of French history isn't enough to say with any certainly how accurate this is, but it's certainly a more compelling portrait of this divisive figure than is provided by the oft-cited and likely apocryphal "let them eat cake!"

Director Benoit Jacquot emphasis the size of the palace through shots of Sidonie running (and frequently tripping over herself) down seemingly endless corridors. Despite living on the grounds, she is always late for work (where she acts as a reader for the Queen) - again suggesting the palace as its own vast world, detached from the reality of life in nearby Paris. It's a house of whispered rumours in which the impending terror appears closer to a scandal than an epoch-defining moment in history. That we know differently amplifies the absurdity of much of what goes on, though the film seldom plays this disconnect as satire - a contributing factor in why this sporadically interesting melodrama struggles to hold your attention and fades quickly from memory.

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