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Les Adieux à la reine

July 28, 2012
Les Adieux à la reine

You have to wonder what the market is for a more or less straightforward costume drama about Versailles in 1789. At least when she made Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola had some sort of high-style, post-punk concept that made the idea seem worth the effort. What does Benoit Jacquot add to Les Adieux à la reine — subtitled in English as Farewell, My Queen — distract us from the fact that this material had been done to death already? lesbians. And not even a serious take on lesbian relationships in the late 18th century; just innuendo and scandal around a hypothesized relationship between Marie Antoinette and one of her companions.

And we don’t even get a front-row seat to the downfall of an empire. Instead, we’re relegated to a blank audience surrogate in the form of the Queen’s reader, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), whose single notable feature is an overwhelming devotion to the desires of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Seriously, the screenplay even tries a halfhearted attempt at lampshading the fact that we know nothing about her. But if we don’t know anything about who this girl is, how can we be expected to care what happens to her? I certainly didn’t.

We can’t care much about the queen, either; we already know her character — a spoiled, frivolous brat whose indulgences came to symbolize every reason that the French monarchy had to go — and this movie adds absolutely nothing to that. All it does is pile on yet another particular whim: her affection for the Duchess de Polignac(?) (Virginie Ledoyen), about whom we also know nothing at all.

We know the general outlines of the French revolution, but the specific events of mid-July 1789 may or may not be common knowledge. Jacquot deals with this by alternating between explicit recountings of what’s going on in Paris — as retold to Sidonie by the palace archivist (Michel Robin) — and a bunch of chaotic bumbling around in the darkened halls of either Versailles or some of its servants’ quarters. The former is a dry history lecture, and the latter is unilluminating and only serves to swell an anemic script.

Further swelling is induced by the dreary exhibitions of Versailles fripperies, like the lavish meals, the sparkling jewelry, and the fancy clothes that become the first targets of the subtler looters, not to mention the fact that nobody ever really does anything. Even Sidonie, after she is no longer needed for the day, takes a gondola ride on the palace grounds and strikes up a frivolous romance with the gondolier (Vladimir Consigny) that comes from nowhere, goes nowhere, and means nothing besides a few more minutes of screen time.

And then there’s the camerawork. Please, can we not have one genre remain safe from gimmicky, poorly executed handheld shots? It’s one thing to use hokey zooms to emphasize what we in the audience are obviously too stupid to understand on our own, or slow back-and-forth pans that throw off the pace of the conversations they’re meant to highlight. But what is with running behind a character with a tight depth of field that keeps the back of their head in focus, but blurs out the distant background? It’s not like we’re looking at a reacting face or anything. We don’t get anything out of these shots, other than maybe a headache as the blurry world wheels and gyres about behind a meticulously focused hairdo.

In fact, the only place some of these shots really fit in would be a horror movie, where they might be used to instill a sense of claustrophobia and ratchet up tension. And maybe that’s the intention, with the blank Sidonie intended to be the sole survivor of the horrors of the revolution about to consume Versailles. The problem is that nothing else we see fits that description. Les Adieux à la reine isn’t a horror movie; it’s just horrible.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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