French director Benoit Jacquot has made 20 films, in a variety of styles. However, the central vein of his work is epitomized by his 1995 breakthrough “A Single Girl.” There, a handheld camera followed a beautiful young woman through her duties as a hotel maid in real time. The director is attentive to the physical spaces through which his characters move. “Farewell, My Queen,” set in four days in 1789, takes place in the palace at Versailles, and the film carries an unusual sense of light and texture.
Some of Jacquot’s films come across simply as opportunities to drag his camera alongside pretty women in equally picturesque locales. But at his best, Jacquot’s libido is balanced by sympathy for the struggles his female characters undergo. A film like “A Single Girl” could hardly feel more modern, but Jacquot seems attracted to period pieces, having directed a biopic of the Marquis de Sade and a made-for-TV film about Sigmund Freud.
“Farewell, My Queen” adds same-sex desire to the mix; it's probably the first film to suggest Marie Antoinette was a lesbian.
“Farewell, My Queen,” based on Chantal Thomas’ novel, begins on July 14, 1789, as Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) wakes up and prepares for her job reading to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). The two women seem to get along great; in fact, there’s a palpable homoeroticism to their chemistry. After the reading is over, Sidonie goes back to sewing. The next day, she learns of revolutionary tensions outside the Bastille.
Marie is also attracted to her friend Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen); in fact, she seems far more likely to jump into bed with her than with Sidonie. The castle is full of tense servants and aristocrats.
“Farewell, My Queen” tracks the breakdown of a decadent, unfair social order without demonizing the rich and privileged. Sofia Coppola’s painfully hip “Marie Antoinette” took Marie’s side. Jacquot’s film is more ambivalent. At first, the queen seems like an appealing personality –– bubbly, girlish, and friendly. When she’s faced with danger, however, she quickly grows more arrogant and entitled. Her innocence is an act. In the end, she coldly proposes using Sidonie as bait.
For the most part, Jacquot’s treatment of lesbianism avoids the usual heterosexual male voyeurism, although one gets the sense the subject excites him. In the 18th century, the vocabulary to describe two women’s desire for each other hadn’t yet been invented, and so it wasn’t as taboo as it would become 200 years later. Marie and Sidonie freely talk suggestively and cuddle in bed together. Jacquot films them in gigantic two-shots in which the actresses’ faces fill the screen. The women seem unaware they’re crossing any kind of social boundary, and the possibility of their relationship becoming overtly sexual seems remote. Despite two nude scenes, Jacquot never shows anything more explicit than kissing and one aborted heterosexual make-out session.
“Farewell, My Queen” invites comparisons with epic portraits of social change like Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.” With its cinematography lit by candles, it looks a bit like Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” However, it’s a far more modest film than either, though it’s a deluxe production by Jacquot’s usual standards. Many period pieces wind up feeling like costume parties, but the past of “Farewell, My Queen” feels thoroughly lived-in. There’s a real attention to detail here, down to the dead rats floating in a river.
“Farewell, My Queen” blatantly interprets the past through the gaze of the present. Everyone knows what happened to Marie Antoinette –– though her eventual fate takes place offscreen, several years after the film’s events. The sexual frankness is a product of 2012; one can only speculate about how lesbians behaved in 1789.
Still, there’s no sense of superiority over the past. Indeed, some might envy the ease with which Marie, Sidonie, and Gabrielle flirt with each other. The true subject of “Farewell, My Queen” isn’t Marie Antoinette, but the people she used, erotically and otherwise. The closing titles suggest that Sidonie, while she may have been a powerless servant, got the last laugh.
FAREWELL, MY QUEEN | Directed by Benoit Jacquot | Cohen Media Group | In French with English subtitles | Opens Jul. 13 | The Angelika | 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St. | angelikacenter.com | Lincoln Plaza Cinema | 1886 Broadway at 63rd St. | lincolnpla