It'll do. As the Opening Night film of the 62nd Berlinale, Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen has just enough star power (Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette, Léa Seydoux — looking at times for all the world like a French Scarlett Johansson — as her reader, Sidonie Laborde, Virginie Ledoyen as the Queen's favorite, Gabrielle de Polignac, Noémie Lvovsky as the first lady-in-waiting, Jeanne Campan, and Xavier Beauvois as Louis XVI), Euro cred and thematic relevance to a few motifs running through this year's edition (the Arab Spring — Death for Sale, The Reluctant Revolutionary, Words of Witness, In the Shadow of a Man, all screening in the Panorama section — and Occupy Wall Street, by way of the "anti-globalization" protests in Genoa 2001 (Diaz - Don't Clean Up This Blood, Panorama Special); there's even an undercurrent of the queer electricity that's Panorama's stock and trade), that it'll do. Like so many films that open festivals great and small, Farewell, My Queen, neither very good nor very bad, almost seems designed to avoid offending anyone invited to the Opening Night gala.
Adapting Chantal Thomas's novel of the same name, Jacquot and his co-screenwriter Gilles Taurand humanize the courtiers of Versailles without sympathizing with them, an approach JC Chandor takes to his bankers in Margin Call, the difference being that Chandor writes characters just complex and varied enough to spark and maintain interest. Marie Antoinette is, of course, frivolous — she has Sidonie shift her reading program from orations to novels to fashion magazines over the course of a few minutes — but her love for Gabrielle causes her genuine pain. It will take Sidonie, petty but hardly to be blamed for her naivete, from the ringing of the alarm which opens the film on the morning of July 14, 1789 (this upstairs-downstairs story is shot through with less-than-subtle omens) through the welling panic that spreads throughout the court as the realization dawns that the uprising in Paris is heading their way, the camera growing restless as well, never Dogma-mumblecore jittery, but nevertheless ill-at-ease as it tracks the back of Sidonie's head through the corridors crowded with bewigged aristocrats plotting their escapes in urgent whispers, through a final betrayal for her to realize that her loyalty to the Queen has less to do with affection than with survival. At one point, Sidonie remarks that, if she were to pay for the clock that's sounded the opening alarm, it would take her several lifetimes.
To the roundup. "Benoit Jacquot's venom-tipped account of palatial intrigue and royal oblivion scrupulously maintains a servant's-eye view but winds up holding the viewer at an unrewarding distance," writes Variety's Justin Chang. To which I'll add: Versailles at times comes off as a giant dollhouse, through which Jacquot sends cinematographer Romain Winding's camera racing, nervously panning, scooting around actors in costumes smudged here and there with authentic dirt, always as if chasing after an illusion of you-are-there contemporaneity but somehow achieving the opposite.
The "deliberate modernity" here, argues Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa, is "embodied Léa Seydoux's performance." The Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young finds Farewell, My Queen to be "distanced but extraordinarily atmospheric… a visual joy to watch, even while its tale of a lower class girl at court infatuated with the Queen of France labors to say something relevant."
Updates, 2/10: "Benoît Jacquot has a somewhat nebulous profile, largely because of his hyper-versatility, but he's likely to score a modest success with this elegantly-mounted yet dramatically austere drama, a considerably more elaborate piece than his last period venture, 2009's Deep in the Woods," writes Jonathan Romney for Screen. "This is a solid, sometimes provocative piece, although substantially more old school than the knowingly hip revisionism of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette."
"Indeed," adds Guy Lodge at In Contention, "Farewell, My Queen operates as the moderate, less excitingly intuitive flipside to Sofia Coppola's freeform imagining of the same tangy period in history. It's both the handsomely lensed and designed corset-opera and the brittle Benoît Jacquot drama different parties might arrived expecting — but as pastel-toned, festival-opening macaroons go, its soured cream filling is an asset."
Cohen Media Group has picked up US rights, reports Nigel M Smith at indieWIRE, where Eric Kohn finds that the film "suffers from a cerebral quality that works against the possibility of turning Sidonie into a fully sympathetic figure."
Kevin B Lee gives the film a C- at Press Play.
Update, 2/11: Jessica Kiang talks with Seydoux for indieWIRE.
Updates, 2/20: "At times, the film plays like one of those overwrought studies of friendship, betrayal and Sapphic longing in a boarding school," suggests Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent, adding that Jacquot "doesn't have any grand political statements to make. He is not trying to make a sweeping melodrama either. His approach is more like that of an anthropologist, studying a tribe in its death throes. The result is quietly fascinating."
More from Jessica Kiang (Playlist, C) and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter). Fabien Lemercier interviews Jacquot for Cineuropa.