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Farewell My Queen

by on August 22, 2012
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For the longest time, period-piece movies were trapped by the type of stories they could tell. So many run together because each one is yet another story of royalty dealing with class issues while parading around in lavish costumes and sets. Some are brilliant and some are forgettable.

Lately, a few filmmakers are embracing the genre and exploring it in stronger ways. Just like the comic-book movie or the horror flick, new things can be said when the queen has to go to court. There is even more than one way to film someone living in a mansion; just look at how Bertrand Tavernier made “The Princess of Montpensier” or how Luca Guadagnino captured “I Am Love.”

Thanks to “Farewell My Queen,” the genre is exciting again, and it’s now the second major film this summer to examine the French Revolution. This one happens to have fewer exploding football stadiums. Although Marie Antionette (Diane Kruger) is in the center of the story, it’s more about the survival tactics of a handmaiden named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux).

Sidonie’s role in the palace is to read to the queen whenever she calls. Until then, she shall live in the less glamorous parts of the building with all of the other servants and her one nice possession — a golden clock. When word comes to the castle that revolutionaries are uprising, people start to panic. Except the Queen.

The juxtaposition between the “upstairs/downstairs” of the palace is unnerving with the way it is lit and how people communicate to each other. Sidonie is such a reserved character that it’s hard to tell what she is trying to accomplish as she helps the Queen with her taboo passions. Since she is our guide, it’s hard to tell how much danger she is in. We know the fate of Marie Antionette, but what happens to those helping the rich live the way they do?

With so many films accusing the wealthy, this one creates more of a conundrum. Director Benoît Jacquot doesn’t condemn the obliviousness or the structure of their lives but creates sympathy for the inevitable. “Farewell My Queen” is intriguing from beginning to end while keeping enough of a distance to draw a number of conclusions on your own. It’s a story that could have been told any time, but only with today’s filmmaking techniques can it have this much of an impact.