So many costume dramas come dead on arrival, concentrating more on re-creating, rather than creating, an era. Two recent yawn-inducing samples: “The Duchess” and “The Young Victoria.”
On the other hand, Benoit Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen” — opening night feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April and now in local theaters — unfolds with urgency. Its intense focus is on events of given moments, rather than events of history.
Based on a novel by Chantal Thomas adapted by Jacquot and Gilles Taurand, the film takes place in 1789, when Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) ruled.
It centers on Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), a lovely young servant who reads for the queen, and must choose the appropriate book for the appropriate mood.
As the Bastille falls and French citizens prepare to collect the heads of the offending aristocrats, inside royal walls, the news spreads as it might today, with whispers, rumors and snatches of information.
The servants’ struggle, vying for the queen’s notice and power over each other as well, becomes intensified, even urgent.
Sidonie is summoned to the queen’s chambers and given special tasks. She begins to believe that she has been given special favor. In one scene, Marie Antoinette notices bug bites on Sidonie’s skin, and lovingly rubs rosewater on them. Sidonie can barely keep from fainting.
But just as quickly, the queen changes her mind and snaps at the poor reader. Complicating matters further is the fact that Sidonie knows about the queen’s passionate, sensual relationship with the beautiful Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).
Jacquot, perhaps best known for “A Single Girl” and “The School of Flesh,” directs with an up-close immediacy, where time is a precious commodity and something — some task or rendezvous — seems to await just outside the frame at any moment. The effect gives the movie a singular drive that prevents it from getting stale.
Many viewers will no doubt unfairly compare “Farewell, My Queen” with Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” which artfully depicted a kind of immobile entrapment in a world of opulence. But the two films, aside from their subject, are quite different, not unlike, say, Jacquot’s “Sade” and Philip Kaufman’s “Quills.”
Strong in differing but varied ways, both would benefit from being viewed together, rather than one supplanting the other.
“Farewell, My Queen,” however, boasts more flesh and blood, and is sexier. Even filmgoers who don’t like costume dramas will find themselves enraptured.