07/15/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2012

The Bastille Topples While a Servant Girl Lusts for the Queen

In Farewell, My Queen Benoît Jacquot reinvents the historical film. Far from a musty costumer, his account of the waning hours in the court of Versailles pairs the excitement of a contemporary eruption with the intimacy of a whispered confidence. Jacquot pulls this off in large part by filtering the last days of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) and the Ancien Régime through the eyes of a servant, the queen's official "reader" Sidonie (Léa Seydoux, ironically French royalty herself as granddaughter of the chairman of Pathé). 

The trope of a bit player's obstructed, worm's-eye view of history is rooted in French literary tradition -- think Fabrizio bumbling around in the Battle of Waterloo in Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. Shot in the real Versailles -- starring as itself in all its gilded glory -- Farewell takes us from the storming of the Bastille, through the panic and chaos among the royals, their courtiers, and servants as the monarchy teeters, to the queen's ill-starred plans to escape to Metz. Throughout, Sidonie never wavers in her devotion to the queen, even when asked to risk her own life, regarded by her superiors as expendable.

In Jacquot's reading, the sexual intrigue in this court is woman to woman. Sidonie's watchful devotion is seeded with envy over the queen's homoerotic attachment to Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen whom Jacquot brought to stardom in A Single Girl). 

Jacquot brilliantly suggests the rot and decay beneath the finery and gilt and captures the disarray of the court at news of the bloodletting in Paris. Indelible scenes capture courtiers wandering with candles in their night clothes with an over-bred dog; and congregating to hear the list of names -- topped by the queen's -- slated for the guillotine (the sound of its descent woven into the, er, edgy score). While the clueless king muses, "I always thought power was inherited -- and a curse," Sidonie discovers exactly how a loyal servant will be rewarded as the executioner draws near.  

I sat down with the always cordial Benoît Jacquot to discuss Farewell after its screening this March in the Film Society's Rendez-vous with French Cinema.

Why did you choose to filter the story through the eyes of the queen's reader?

I felt that the point of view of a very young woman in service to the queen would yield truthful feelings about the situation. If I were asked to make a film about a war-torn country like Libya, I'd do the same: find someone to follow who would himself be my primary subject and through whose eyes I could have a true picture of what's going on. A feeling of truth that I couldn't find on a battlefield.

What did you make of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette?

I didn't dislike it, but it's a cinematic world alien to mine.

I found Sidonie's final discovery of how she's regarded by her royal masters pretty devastating.

Yes, she learns something violent. At the end she learns that she's no one, nothing. And this opens the path to her becoming someone.

I'm not sure I follow you.

Well, at the end Sidonie sacrifices to the queen, still in servant mode. But the concluding voice-off is there to indicate that she herself realizes she's no one -- which can be an opening to become someone. Her statements suggest that that at some point she'll become somebody. Think of it this way: People wear masks. Once you shed the mask you open the possibility for the authentic person to emerge. To become someone you have first to be nobody.

Will viewers get that?

Viewers will understand, they'll feel it, feel moved by the end without immediately knowing why. The young woman completes her sacrifice for the queen as a prelude to becoming someone.

Do you see parallels between contemporary politics and Farewell?

Yes, the impossibility for the powerful to understand that they can't hold onto their power indefinitely. When those they abuse revolt, the bosses remain uncomprehending. Sarkozy [this interview predates the elections] is like a king and can't imagine the French no longer want him.

You choose to work with actresses who have almost expression-less faces. The word tabula rasa comes to mind.

Why do I make films? To project on a screen. And the actress's face is yet another screen that reflects the things that happen in the film.

Are the homoerotic female liaisons in your film based on historical fact?

Well, Sidonie is invented. But yes, letters and witnesses reveal that there were amorous ties between Marie Antoinette and Gabrielle de Polignac.

I was struck by how separate the women were from the men at Versailles, as if the women lived in their own little world.

Yes, and the film reflects my vision of the difference between the sexes. I think that when women get together they can hold the world in the palm of their hand. Men are not essential -- only for reproduction. I'd say men are even dangerous.