The Cohen Media Group is a relatively new company that, over the last four years, has produced and distributed primarily highly acclaimed international art house films. The company's latest release on DVD and Blu-ray is Farewell, My Queen, director Benoit Jacquot's French-language 2012 period costume drama that centers on the outbreak of the French Revolution, as experienced by Sidonie (Lea Seydoux), a young woman who has the seemingly enviable position of being "The Queen's Reader". Her primary responsibility is to literally read books to Marie Antoinette (that's right, the nobility didn't even have to strain their eyes). Sidonie, a twenty-something country girl, is in awe of the Queen and is slavishly devoted to her needs. As played by Diane Kruger, Marie Antoinette is presented as the undeniably spoiled wife of Louis XVI, but the portrayal humanizes her. Marie Antoinette, like so many famous (or infamous) historical figures, has often been reduced to a caricature on the silver screen. In Jacquot's film, however, she is allowed to show an intelligent and softer side, as evidenced through the respect she shows Sidonie. The film, based on Chantal Thomas' 2003 novel, constrains the action to four pivotal days in French history. When we are first introduced to Sidnonie and her Queen, the palace staff is living comfortably in the lavish palace of Versailles. The story makes it quite clear that Sidonie's interest and devotion to the Queen extends beyond her duties as a household servant- she is clearly sexually attracted to her. The screenplay capitalizes on long-standing rumors that Marie Antoinette was a not-so-closeted lesbian. (Pamphlets were distributed in Paris during the day satirizing Marie's alleged participation in lesbian orgies.) Historically, this was never proven, but the rumors seem to have been inspired by her marriage to a disinterested monarch who slept in a separate bedroom and all but ignored her. Marie also undoubtedly had very close relationships with other women that helped keep the rumor-mill going. In Farwell, My Queen, Marie Antoinette comes out of the closet to Sidonie, but the girl's romantic fantasies are crushed when it is revealed that the Queen's true love is Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), a married duchess with an independent streak who has engaged in a lesbian relationship with Marie. The lives of the aristocracy and those who serve them are abruptly sent into turmoil when news arrives from Paris that the peasants have stormed the Bastille. Panic sweeps through the palace, and chaos reigns as the King's guards desert, leaving the pampered royals to fend for themselves for the first time in their lives. In the midst of the madness, King Louis (a peripheral figure in the story, but well-played by Xavier Beauvois), opts not to flee along with his "loyal" staff and agrees to go to Paris to meet the dissidents in hopes of retaining the throne. Left to her own devices, Marie Antoinette believes she is doomed and enlists Sidonie in a high-risk plan to secure the safety of Gabrielle, whose excesses have made her particularly reviled by the populace.
This is a lavish, big-budget production that brings to mind the visual splendor of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. Romain Winding's cinematography is an inspiration, turning the opulent backdrops into cinematic "paintings". Director Jacquot defies the odds by successfully telling a female-driven story from a female point-of-view. The character of Sidonie is our protagonist, but she remains an enigma and we never do understand how a peasant girl became employed by the royal court. Her sexual obsession with the Queen is also complicated by the fact that she is clearly bi-sexual, as evidenced by an aborted sex act with a hunky palace servant. It's as though these ambiguities are intentional, designed to lead the audience to ponder what other mysteries lie behind the lead characters. Where the film excels is in the scenes that show just how abrupt life and politics changed with the storming of the Bastille. In days when communications were not instantaneous, the rumors prevailed and one can sympathize with the characters who hang on for any sliver of information that might indicate if they will share the same fate as the warden of Bastille, who was decapitated with a pen knife. The movie is about unrequited love in several relationships. The marriage between Louis XVI and Marie is one of convenience, a complete sham designed to produce heirs to the throne. The love affair between Marie and Gabrielle is distinctly tilted in the latter's favor, as evidenced by Gabrielle's immediate acceptance of Marie's offer to allow her to flee France with her husband, thus leaving the Queen to face her fate alone. The romantic desire by Sidonie to be Marie's lover is not fulfilled, as the Queen sees her only as a useful tool to help protect the woman she really loves. If there is a drawback to the movie, it's in the fact that that the ending, which finds Sidonie gamely being used as bait to smuggle Gabrielle and her husband to Switzerland, comes a bit abruptly and doesn't follow through on the fate of our heroine. Similarly, some viewers might be frustrated by the fact that the fates of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI are never explored after Sidonie leaves the palace. This is understandable, not only because the film is about a young woman, not the monarchy, and also due to the fact that, as a French production, it is assumed its intended audiences knows full well about the unspeakable fate that befell the royals. Still, it shouldn't have to be said that viewers would benefit from having at
least a modicum of knowledge about the historical references made in the
film, as this is clearly not a production designed to appeal to the Transformers crowd.
The Blu-ray release is gorgeous on every level. Extras include a post-premiere interview with Benoit Jacquot, conducted by Kent Jones of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and on-set interviews with the director and cast members. There is also a theatrical trailer that slightly exaggerates the lesbian angle, which seems to be used to market everything other than potato chips in recent years. In all, however, it's an outstanding presentation of a very worthy film that many would not otherwise have been exposed to.
Much has been stated about the glory days of European film-making having been relegated to the post-WWII period through the 1970s. However, intelligent movies such as Farewell, My Queen, which boasts excellent performances by all as well as impressive direction, prove that there are substantial talents working in the European cinema. Perhaps these films don't benefit from the kind of sensational, world-wide publicity that was accorded to the works of Fellini and Bunuel, but there is a vast array of productions that are well-worth viewing, as evidenced by this release.