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Farewell, My Queen

The opening title sets the scene on July 14, 1789, and if that date isn’t immediately recognizable to you, you’re probably not the target market for this historical drama. It was the day later identified as the beginning of the French Revolution, when the storming of the Bastille prison set in motion the eventual overthrow of the French monarchy.

We see none of that. As adapted by the veteran French director Benoit Jacquot, Farewell, My Queen recreates the next few days as they might have been experienced inside the palace at Versailles, 20 kilometres from Paris. Like Downfall, about the final days of Hitler, it looks at well-known events from a perspective we haven’t seen before.

Our surrogate is Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young woman who reads to the Queen (Diane Kruger) and otherwise works in the court as an embroiderer. Her life may not be fabulous—Jacquot filmed in the real Versailles, capturing both the opulence of the royal quarters and the reek of the stone-walled, rat infested chambers where most of the court lived. But she has, for at least a few minutes per day, the favor of Marie Antoinette, and that is her hope for the future.

Of course we know better, and we recognize the signs of the impending Armageddon ahead of the staff, who are kept uninformed and who don’t always know how to react to what news does leak in. The highlight of an extended sequence in which the palace is roused in the middle of the night comes when one courtier finds a pamphlet containing the names of 286 people who must be beheaded to achieve reform, and discovers his own name on it.

Deliberately paced and rife with ambiguities, Farewell, My Queen has a dreamy atmosphere that occasionally slides into looming nightmare, and back again. The ending feels a bit anticlimactic, but this is historical speculation rather than spectacle.

Watch the trailer for Farewell, My Queen

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