When Farewell, My Queen opens, it's Bastille Day before there was a Bastille Day: July 14, 1789, in Versailles. In other words, the shit is officially about to hit the fan.
Marie Antoinette, of course, is in the mood for something frivolous. The queen (Diane Kruger) has sent for one member of her outsized staff, asking her to fetch Marivaux's Félicie, a lesser-known effort from the great playwright that seems to concern a woman who disregards warnings from the goddesses of modesty and chastity. Apparently, the Queen isn't only in the mood for frivolity, but familiarity. Immodest? This is a woman who's got a staffer assigned to do nothing but read to her. And as far as her chastity, that's the subject of half the whispering in Versailles. The other half is about the multitude of heads that might start rolling any minute.
But back to that reader the Queen sends for: This is Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), a young woman faithful to a fault. Or maybe to the point of insanity. She sleeps in quarters where rats seem plentiful, and she wouldn't make enough money in three lifetimes to purchase one of the alarm clocks in the castle, but man does she love the Queen. (In interviews, the film's director, Benoît Jacquot, has discussed the present-day relevance of his film, invoking the Arab Spring. But Sidonie's relationship with the Queen brings contemporary celebrity worship more to mind than unrest in Tunisia.)
Sidonie's grip on reality may be slipping as much as the King's hold on the people. Farewell, My Queen feels like it's taking place in a dream, not only because of Jacquot's handling of tone (see his 2004 movie tout de suite, also about a young woman making bad decisions because of questionable obsession) but because many scenes begin with Sidonie waking up, gasping. There's a masterful invocation of what it might have really felt like to be in Versailles as the outside world was collapsing, as well as the feeling of being in a dream, and you can see why Sidonie might not be thinking straight.
Antoinette gives Sidonie an exotic new drink called coffee. "Burn your tongue?" she asks, almost hopefully, but Sidonie is deaf to any pleasure the Queen takes in her subjects' pain. The Queen might find nasty joy in others' suffering, but she's in the dumps herself: She's hung up on the Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), and it's making her miserable. Ledoyen is stiff and unappealing in Farewell, but with a purpose. Trying to locate a performance in Ledoyen's role, I realized that she remains distant because Sidonie's love for the Queen and the way the Queen pines for the Duchess doesn't make sense.
But that doesn't mean it's not believable. Farewell, My Queen is about unattainable desires. We want what we can't have, and we worship those who have what we don't. The fans of Angelina Jolie and Lebron James aren't multimillionaires, after all. When Sidonie gets a grotesque kind of wish fulfillment at the end of the movie, the way she embraces it tells you something in her has probably snapped. It also might tell you something about who we desire, and why.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gawking at the revolution."