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‘Farewell’ adds twist to French history

Fri., Aug. 24, 2012

Marie Antoinette earns a big-screen makeover in “Farewell, My Queen,” a lavish French period piece based on an inspired fictional fancy spun from real history.

This is not the “Let them eat cake” queen who dismissed the news that the peasantry was starving or bread with alternative pastry suggestions. This Marie might still be the hated Austrian wife of King Louis, but is no Kirsten Dunst/Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette”) ditz. She is cunning enough to know when the game is up, smart enough to want to flee when the news finally reaches her through the insular bubble of Versailles that the peasants have stormed the Bastille.

But she is loyal to her husband (this Louis is no fop), resigned to the trap his sense of duty puts them in. So she frets over trivial things – fabrics she covets, embroidery she orders.

And she pines for the woman she loves.

“Farewell” is told from the point of view of one of the queen’s “readers,” court servants who go to the court library for her, fetch her favorite books and read to her each night to help her sleep.

Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) is a ravishingly beautiful commoner who knows her books, knows what her mistress likes and only has eyes for her queen.

And since Marie is played by the stunning Diane Kruger (“Troy,” the “National Treasure” movies), we understand.

Each day at court for Sidonie is “like a journey to a faraway land,” she confides to the other servants. The rest of France might be starving and disease-stricken in that summer of 1789. But in court, Sidonie eats well and only has to worry about the intrigues of other ladies at court, the pecking order of the household and above all, pleasing her queen.

But the queen only has eyes for another, a lady of the court. And since she’s played by the gorgeous Virginie Ledoyen, we understand that, too.

Outside, “the wolves” are “leaving the forest” and revolt has come to the kingdom. But Marie is largely in the dark. The Bastille? “Something bad happened there.”

Even though the film begins the day the Bastille was stormed, director Benoit Jacquot preserves the bubble of Versailles as long as possible.

“Farewell, My Queen” has an “As It Happens” hand-held news camera immediacy to many scenes. But the urgency is always Sidonie sprinting to work, or dashing down to the library, or trying to awaken the queen’s sleepy paramour Gabrielle de Polignac (Ledoyen). Little is seen of the chaos erupting outside.

Only the quickening pace of the score hints at what few in the palace realize is happening.

History doesn’t let us feel much sympathy for Marie Antoinette. But “Farewell, My Queen” almost has us rooting for her and those who love her by its finale. “Cake” or no cake, that’s no mean feat for any historical revisionist motion picture.


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