This set of films for the month of March is taking a decided turn toward France, but that just happens to be the result of two things, either they were immediately available to me, or as in the case of this film, something I wanted to see before entirely committing to a top ten list for 2012. Farewell, My Queen, a film by Benoit Jacquot, of whom I am not familiar with, is certainly within the context of my month of women in film, considering that it essentially focuses on the experiences of the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent attack on the residence of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, however, where many films would place the narrative centrally within the experiences of either member of royalty, this particular incarnation focuses on one of the servants to Antoinette, both fresh in the take on the popular bit of period piece, as well as likely riding the coattails of Downton Abbey and other upstairs/downstairs oriented dramas. Even if it is existing in the vacuum of this thematic approach, Farewell, My Queen is decidedly its own work and focuses quite directly on the experiences of one woman, whose navigating through the spaces of privilege, while also being detached from them, serves as a half-expose on the French aristocracy of the era and wholly evocative, intrusive piece of cinema. Of course, what makes Farewell, My Queen such a heavily noted film from last year is not any of the aforementioned elements, but what it decides to suggest about the theory that Antoinette was engaged in lesbian activities, during her life. While the film could have taken this idea and run amuck with it exploiting nudity and sexuality without apologies, the exceptionally introspective and pensive film actually considers the romantic evolution of such a relationship, particularly how navigating such a socially unacceptable relationship might have occurred, through shared whispers and back room intimacies. I will not go out of my way to say that Farewell, My Queen is a great film, it is indeed quite good and well worth watching, where it does fail is simply in its overly ambitious narrative a fault that one can only be so critical of in a overall soundly created film.
Farewell, My Queen, while possessive of multiple characters, focuses primarily on Agathe (Lea Seydoux) a young woman attempting to make her own in the world while working as the appointed reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). In the beginning of the film, Agathe is more concerned with making her advancement within the halls of the palace, despite being blocked by older women who see her as being disrespectful and precocious. Marie, however, seems to take a particular liking to Agathe and talks very candidly with her about her opinions about life, of course, avoiding to do so when in the presence of others. Yet, within hours of this being depicted, the Bastille is sieged and it becomes rather clear that the palace will be destroyed and beheadings will ensue for all those with power, Louis XVI and Marie being the first names on the list. This revelation, understandably, leads the palace into a degree of anarchy, a facade of formality is attempted, yet as workers begin quitting or turning to the aid of the peasants so too does the sanity in the palace. In the madness of it all, Marie finds herself revealing a deeply kept secret to Agathe about a relationship she has been having with Duchess Gabrielle (Virginie Ledoyen), one with a very real sexual element. Agathe sees it as her duty to keep Marie's secret hidden, even with the presence of evasive questions and a complete dismissal of authority information transition. When it becomes quite evident that to stay at the palace will be to assure death, Marie is baffled to find out that Louis expects them both to remain, a concern that worsens when she is told that Gabrielle will be leaving, leading to them having a final moment of intimacy without interaction in front of the entire royal court. In a last ditch effort to assure her safety, Gabrielle plans to have Agathe dress as her during the escape, just in case they run into hostile peasants, all the while Gabrielle will attempt to pass as a maid. This plan proves successful for them, however, as history tells us things were less ideal for Marie Antoinette, yet, in a final challenge to the viewer the closing dialogue is Agathe reminding everyone that the film is of her story, not that of anybody else, no matter how historically important.
The film is about a lot of things, however, whether it be navigating class issues or accepting ones sexuality, it is overly concerned with the idea of performance. This exists perhaps most obviously in the manner with which class and prestige are performed. The various servants of Marie are expected to act in an upright manner, even when she is being excessive and completely detached. In fact, when Agathe scratches her itching arm it makes a huge controversy arise where Agathe's job is threatened for acting of a lower and filthy class, even though it is established that Agathe is to always be below Marie, yet she is also expected to perform as friend to her at all times, exchanging opinions about trivialities such as fabric. Of course, sexuality is also performed to a degree, Marie, who the narrative suggests to be at the very least bisexual, must also perform heterosexuality, when in public and even when things are falling apart, the concern for saving face makes her reject her bisexuality openly, and the same thing certainly holds true for Gabrielle, although one could argue that she is engaging in a certain degree of deception. I would even stretch this another layer further and add the possibility that Agathe is also a lesbian, although she claims to engage in every action as a direct result of her devotion to the Queen as an authority figure, however, given the state of authority at the point in which the narrative emerges, one cannot help but think that her affection extends beyond mere aristocratic hierarchy. Then there is also the very real performance which occurs on the part of Agathe and Gabrielle where they essentially switch identities, one becoming the object of desire for Marie, while the other moves away from that realm, perhaps into the roles they were ideally intended for, one cannot say for sure, yet it is rather evident that their both exist feelings that betray the acts they have up until this point been performing. It is a brilliant multi-layered identity narrative which will likely benefit from multiple viewings.
Key Scene: There is a scene where Marie is removing her wig and wiping off her makeup that says so much about her letting her guard down only moments later, it is cinematic metaphor executed to an otherworldly degree.
This is a solid film, I am still not a hundred percent sold on it, as such, I would suggest renting it to see what you think.