Marie Antoinette earns a big-screen makeover in Farewell, My Queen, a lavish French period piece based 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 for bread with suggestions of pastry. This Marie might still be the hated Austrian wife of King Louis but is no ditz in the vein of Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette. She is cunning enough to know when the game is up, smart enough to want to flee when the news that the peasants have stormed the Bastille finally reaches her through the insular bubble of Versailles.
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 (Léa Seydoux) is a ravishingly beautiful commoner who knows her books, knows what her mistress likes and has eyes only for her queen.
Since Marie is played by the stunning Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds, Troy, the National Treasure movies), we understand.
Each day at court for Sidonie is "like a journey to a far-away 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 has to worry only 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, Gabrielle de Polignac, a lady of the court. Because 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."
In those marble and glass halls, the court carries on as before, with occasional bursts of energy plotting an escape as the impotent rich fear the rising fury of the mob.
Even though the film begins the day the Bastille was stormed, director Benoît Jacquot preserves the bubble of Versailles as long as possible.
Farewell, My Queen has the immediacy of an As It Happens hand-held news camera in 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. 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.
Kruger and Seydoux give shades of flintiness, flirtatiousness and vulnerability to their characters, and are so good that they overwhelm the film's sedate pace and meandering sense of which story threads to follow.
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.