Edit 11/11/12: Y'know, I really don't like this film but at the same time I really do like it. I like it so much that it borders on obsession and I even like it in spite of its faults. I will retract one statement in which I said it doesn't have layers. It does. However, since I poured my blood and sweat on my initial review, I'll leave it up. Just wonder why I decided to recant some statements and raise my 2.5 star rating to 5 stars (simple answer: I'm obsessed with Marie Antoinette, too, even if I hated this movie. Praises and criticisms will always be with Marie Antoinette, I guess). Hey, I did the same last year with some far-worse movies. And later I'll put up another review to explain this sudden reversal.
(ORIGINAL REVIEW written Aug. 29, 2012):
A lite-Robert Altman film. Farewell, My Queen has a premise that may draw unsuspecting viewers in, such as myself, but below the juicy surface of the implied lesbian romance is a film that observes the monarch and servant structures of Versailles. It just happens to be set during the final months of Marie Antoinette (before she fled).
The protagonist is the Queen's reader Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) who scurries between two worlds and can't help but hear/see the latest gossip whether it's the oncoming rebellion or what the high-class people really think behind closed doors. She acts out her usual customs and the film makes sure we see every single detail cuz y'know, accuracy! Historians and sociologists may get a kick outta this. Sidonie is the Queen's reader, so she reads books and magazines aloud to a sometimes absent-minded Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), who is capable of reading and writing herself, so why she needs a reader in the first place is a mystery. Boredom? Laziness? Luxury? Maybe just because she can. (fyi: Marie Antoinette wasn't dumb or illiterate). Over the course of whenever Sidonie was appointed "reader," she had developed a little crush on the Queen who herself seems to be in lesbians with her BFF Gabriele de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). The suspense! Ehhh, not really.
Our reader is just that: an observer acting on behalf of the audience to catch a glimpse of 1789 France. Sidonie also loves her Queen and would do anything to please her as she repeatedly says. In addition to the observant approach, the fascination with Marie Antoinette grows not only by Sidonie, but also by the viewer. Quite a bummer that for a movie about Marie Antoinette there's hardly any Marie Antoinette to be found but I guess that's what makes her limited screen time valuable. But only if you, the viewer, is fascinated by Marie Antoinette and history. If not, then you're gonna have a bad time.
This film is a mixed bag and I can't help but think the late Robert Altman would've made a damn fine adaptation. Very few directors could show what he or she intended with a large group, especially one of this complex structure, while also delivering a good story. Altman was a master of such presentation. Yes, we know the differences between servants and higher class--Altman showed that in his brilliant Gosford Park (it was about British class but kinda similar)--so why did this movie or story need to be made? It hardly shows anything worthwhile and even for a fictional story it comes up short. Our reader just is not interesting. She reads outloud, she crushes hard on Marie Antoinette, and she hears the juiciest gossip but what does it all matter in the end? Rumors, gossip, and speculation only get validated. The audience is aware of the inevitable so it's like we're just waiting. Sidonie could've been like an 18th century Gossip Girl and jotting down all this stuff ("Welcome to the scandalous life of Versailles' elite")... and it's sad that I made that reference. Something, anything!
Alas, the Queen sits in her chambers, confused, frightened, lonely, and (again) absent-minded. The only time she lightens up is when Gabriele enters the picture but at that point we don't care except for that woozy camera during their alone time. Speaking of which, this movie has some bad camerawork and unnecessary shots that trail off like the cameraman was drunk/stoned and the editor got lazy. Fiction aside, the look of the film is a generic historical presentation. Looks nice but so what? Where's the story I was promised? Forget the "sophistication," this is a work of fiction so treat it like one! I'm sure Versailles had a lot more interesting stories and many could have been told; be a cool ensemble piece. Or embellish the main story more, but we're just reduced to a fly-on-the-wall approach by our bland reader with a schoolgirl crush but just pussyfoots around... Maybe that fits the story/author's own creative liberties. Hell, Sofia Coppola had gusto even when her film was more grounded in history. And how could they shove Marie Antoinette aside? The fascination only grows from her limited screentime. I myself am utterly fascinated by this historical figure. Too bad she's in short supply and instead we're spoonfed the life of Versailles in a nutshell.
We know from history what will happen as the film wraps up. Surprisingly, what happens to our lead and I guess Marie Antoinette still kinda rocks our core. But it's too late for us to care any longer. To sum up the film, it's the story about a nobody who becomes a nobody in the end. No juiciness, just a really bland attempt at educating the uninitiated. Sidonie is basically Mr. Peabody in disguise.
Farewell, My Queen is not a bad film but it's really an unnecessary one. It seems more rooted in history despite a fictional take, so there are good sets, good acting, good costumes. The observant angle isn't well done but what does intrigue me was the reader's fascination maybe because, again, I am also fascinated by the Queen. But even that mindset doesn't go as far as I'd hope it would because there's virtually no Marie Antoinette here nor lesbian stuff. Yeah, typical guy thinking. Anyone who thinks this film is sophisticated or buys into the "audience observing Versailles" take are only kidding themselves and believe me, I tried to like this film with that warped outlook but it fell apart. It's not that I don't find life at Versailles uninteresting; the movie just gave us a checklist. Maybe this is good for some people to watch just for that but there isn't enough. For a while I did think the movie's approach was interesting, like a behind the scenes of Versailles, but the story was flat and borrowed from better movies. It's a boring and uninspired thesis paper mixed with a boring and uninspired fiction story.
Stick to a Robert Altman movie (Gosford Park or Short Cuts) or Sofia Coppola's underappreciated Marie Antoinette. Even that film, as much as people hated it, has more layers than this flick.