Sunday, September 21, 2014

Thoughts on Farewell, My Queen (2012)

Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen (French title: Les Adieux à la reine) is based on a historical fiction novel of the same name by Chantal Thomas. Both the book and the film follow the isolated, insular life of Sidonie (Agathe-Sidonie in the book) Laborde, an official reader to Marie Antoinette. Sidonie, along with the rest of the inhabitants of Versailles, finds herself swept up in the chaos during the fall of the Bastille.

And while the book and the film follow the same basic plot, the film adaptation of Farewell, My Queen gives a vastly different impression of of the events (and the people) involved in the story than its source material.


 One of the more significant deviations that the film takes from the book is its portrayal of Marie Antoinette. Diane Kruger's Marie Antoinette is mercurial--at times exceedingly sweet and kind and, at others, exceedingly cruel. Half of her scenes make you wonder why Sidonie is so unbelievably devoted to the queen, much less (as the film implies) possibly romantically in love with her. To me, it is such a shame because Kruger does give a fine performance with the material she was given, but the decision to have Antoinette swing between the 'gentle kindness' described in the book and a haughty cruelness was not, in my opinion, a wise one.

Not only does it make her a rather unlikeable character, it dramatically shifts her relationships with all of the other characters, giving them a more embittered flavor than they ever had in the book. It is easy to understand why Sidonie is so devoted to Marie Antoinette in the book. In the film, you are left wondering why Sidonie would ever rejoice at the thought of spending even a moment with her.


Nowhere is this change in the queen's personality more apparent than in the scene where she asks Sidonie to disguise herself as the duchesse de Polignac in order for her companion to safely flee France. In the film, the scene is a harrowing climax on Sidonie's love for Marie Antoinette. The queen thinks nothing of using Sidonie as bait to save her friend and bristles when Sidonie puts up resistance to the idea, even going so far as to say Sidonie should show "no arrogance" because she is being allowed to earn the queen's love through this action.

It is the ultimate power struggle, one that Sidonie cannot hope to win, regardless of any perceived relationship she had with the queen. She is then casually stripped of her clothes in front of Marie Antoinette, in a painfully vulnerable moment that may be a nod to a scene earlier in the film, where Sidonie pulled down the covers to stare at the naked, sleeping duchesse de Polignac. Marie Antoinette kisses the disguised Sidonie, a kiss meant for the duchesse de Polignac, in a cruel twist of Sidonie's own feelings for the queen.

In the book, however, there is no cruel confrontation between Sidonie and the Queen. The Queen lays out her request, and Sidonie accepts. She remarks later that she was 'pulled in two directions' and that she could have evaded the order, but she felt 'carried along ... by passions that were foreign to me.' She is upset at the idea of leaving behind Versailles and the queen, but there is no sense of the cruelness or betrayal as there is in the film. And, in the book, it is Gabrielle de Polignac, not Sidonie, who is stripped of her clothing--this time by Marie Antoinette herself, who dresses Gabrielle in the peasant disguise for her journey.

The difference between these two scenes might lie in the film's decision to drastically lower Sidonie's age and, consequently, completely change her relationship with the queen. In the book, Sidonie is in her late 30s or early 40s, just a few years older than the queen. She plays a part similar to Madame Campan: an older woman with great loyalty to a queen who has earned that devotion through kindness and gentleness. In the film, however, Sidonie appears to be in her early or mid 20s and her relationship with the queen is more like a girlish infatuation or crush than anything else.

To the older book Sidonie, Marie Antoinette's request is not seen as a betrayal but more a natural part of the relationship between a queen and a loyal servant--she is upset, not because she feels betrayed, but because she is leaving the carefully crafted world of Versailles, at the center of which was Marie Antoinette, behind. The film Sidonie, by contrast, seems personally hurt by the queen's request, which is a reflection of the altered dynamics of their relationship in the film version.



 The portrayal of the duchesse de Polignac in the film is another strange departure from the novel. Polignac is not portrayed as an angel by any means in the book, but it is, as with Marie Antoinette, at least easy to understand why the queen is taken with her.

In the film, she is cold, sharp and calculating. It's far more natural to side with her enemies in the film due to her distant and off-putting personality. In the book, however, Gabrielle described as having softness, sweetness and a gentle temperament that suited the queen well. The green dress that she wears has no symbolism in the film--yet in the novel she wears it because she knows it will lift the queen's spirits, due to the fact that everyone else is wearing the prescribed dark mourning fashions for the queen's son, Louis Joseph, as prescribed by etiquette.

Her gentle disposition makes her betrayal in the novel, where she calmly recites everything (down to the last bill) that she will need in order to flee France, all the more effective. And when Gabrielle mutely cries at the end of the book, realizing the depth of her actions as Sidonie reads her a note from the queen, it packs a punch that sits at the bottom of your stomach. At the end of the film, Gabrielle is concerned only with keeping Sidonie in line as they flee the country, with not a hint of sadness or regret for her actions.

Why such a change? Perhaps the director wanted to contrast the harsh, sharp Gabrielle with the soft youth of Sidonie, especially given the presence of a scene where Marie Antoinette, who is almost gushing over her feelings for Gabrielle, compliments the enraptured Sidonie's youth.


That is not to say that the film does not have merits. The film, like the book, is not afraid to tackle the side of Versailles that is often swept aside in favor of bubbling fountains and gilded walls: the gritty, dirty reality of living in a palace with hundreds of people, pets, and--of course--the pests that naturally follow. There is a delightfully terrible moment early on in the film when Sidonie, who has just dabbed a liberal amount of odor-covering perfume on herself, is teased with a rat by another servant living in the palace. The presence of the dead rat, sweaty courtiers packed into hallways, and mosquito bites that litter Sidonie's arms are just some of the many ways that Jacquot shows the dirtier side of Versailles.

Another aspect of the book that the film tackles well is the sense of impending apocalypse that creeps through Versailles as the news of the Bastille makes its way through the palace. The film builds up the unnatural tension slowly; there is a brief moment early on in the film when Sidonie is running towards the Petit Trianon chateau. She (as she so often does in this film) slips and falls. She turns around and looks at the two guards who are standing at the gate. Neither so much as looks at her. Later on, two stewards can be seen discussing a minor rebellion: not announcing a marquis when he entered a room. In that same scene, one of Sidonie's contemporaries is handed a small chunk of hard bread for breakfast; the woman at the table remarks, "You call this bread?" and the servant fires back: "Some people make this last a week."

A scene later on in the film when the inhabitants of Versailles reach the pinnacle of panic is also worth mentioning: as courtiers flee the palace in droves, one woman commits suicide in despair and we see a brief but chilling glimpse of her body being cut down. The film rather wisely decided to not include the physical manifestation of "Panic" that the book portrays as a deranged woman wreaking havoc on the palace grounds, and replaced her appearances with some somber, yet shocking, realities of fear.



Another aspect of the film that I enjoyed was the inclusion of new scenes between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which although brief, are a highlight of the film due to their tenderness. The book did not dwell too long on Louis XVI, largely because Sidonie did not have much interaction with the king, but the film includes several scenes that reflect the tender relationship between the king and queen. Of particular note is the moving scene where she has Sidonie read the beginning of her speech to the people of Paris, in case the king should be kidnapped or harmed, which was quoted from a speech the real Marie Antoinette wrote. Kruger's performance really shines here, as it does in other moments in the film where she is allowed to portray the magnetic Marie Antoinette described in the novel.



I won't say that I hate the film, or even dislike it--I actually do enjoy it... for what it is. My misgivings are more about the fact that it is not a good adaptation of the original novel, and the changes made alter the core of the story penned by Chantal Thomas. The novel is a rich, lush look at the crumbling decay of the strict and unnatural world of Versailles, which sparks with life and fear and panic at the intrusion of the world outside the palace. The book tackles the dying days of Versailles in a realistic way that, at times, reads like an actual memoir. The film,  however, ignores much of the outside context of the story and focuses much more heavily on an even more isolated viewpoint for Sidonie (since, unlike the book, the film is not told in retrospect) and the newly crafted relationship triangle between a younger Sidonie, a Marie Antoinette with split personalities, and a cold Gabrielle de Polignac, and the resulting power struggles, infatuations and betrayals that bounce between them.


Monday, September 8, 2014

'Marie Antoinette' by Paul Romilly

image: a vintage illustration of Marie Antoinette and a lady walking at Versailles
credit: my collection

Marie Antoinette by Paul Romilly, translated from French:
She passes, in the flower gardens of Trianon
In her negligee of old light fabric:
was there ever freshness, grace equal to hers?
The goddess shows even in linen.

But time has a marching pace without a name:
Dishonored queen, treated as a bitch.
And filthy pamphlets rain down on 'The Austrian.'
She is "Lady Veto," when it is the king who says "no."

The senselessness of the crime astonishes history
And no expiatory offering can erase it.
The love of a whole people, the hate of a whole nation.

The poor woman in mourning, pale under her cap.
To see that specter on the scaffold, who would believe
the widow Capet was Marie Antoinette?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

'That was the sole moment when her firmness abandoned her.'


image: A wax tableau of the royal family hearing the news of the murder of the princesse de Lamballe
source: my scan/collection

From the account of Marie Thérèse Charlotte, duchesse d'Angouleme, on the dreadful day of September 3rd, 1792:

At three in the afternoon we heard dreadful outcries; my father left the dinner-table and played backgammon with my mother, to control his countenance and be able to say a few words to her without being heard. The municipal guard in the room behaved well; he closed the door and window, also the curtains, so that they might see nothing. The workmen at the Temple and the jailer Rocher joined the murderers, which increased the noise. Several officers of the National Guard and some municipals arrived; the first desired that my father should show himself at the window. The municipals fortunately opposed this; but my father, having asked what was happening, a young officer replied: "Well, if you want to know, it is the head of Mme. de Lamballe they wish to show you."

My mother was seized with horror; that was the sole moment when her firmness abandoned her. The municipals scolded the officer, but my father, with his usual kindness, excused him, saying it was not the officer's fault, but his own for having questioned him. The noise lasted till five o'clock.

The tumult was hardly over before Pétion, instead of exerting himself to stop the massacre, coldly sent his secretary to my father to reckon about money. This man was very ridiculous, and said many things which would have made us laugh at another moment; he thought my mother remained standing on his account; for since that awful scene she had continued standing, motionless, and seeing nothing that took place in the room. The municipal guard who had sacrificed his scarf at the door made my father pay for it. My aunt and I heard the générale beaten all night; my unhappy mother did not even try to sleep; we listened to her sobs.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Upcoming Release: A Day with Marie-Antoinette: An Intimate Portrait of Her Life at Versailles

A new release from Flammarion, set to be published next May! I can't wait for this one!



Amazon.com synopsis:
This beautifully illustrated book sheds new light on the personal life of Marie Antoinette and reveals hidden aspects of her Versailles. Marie Antoinette was a mirror of her time. Never before has a queen been so passionately admired and adulated, then hunted, vilified, and defamed. From the young queen playing a shepherdess on stage, unaware of the turmoil in the capital, to France’s "martyr queen," the author demystifies the legend, unveiling the woman behind the queen, and the wife and mother behind the sovereign.By tracing her footsteps through Versailles, discovering her voice through her letters, and encountering little-known works in her private art collection, the reader gains new insight on the tragically brief life of a passionate, sensitive, dramatic, and captivating woman. Organized chronologically, with lavish new photography and a wealth of unpublished material, this is a nuanced portrait of Marie Antoinette and her Versailles.

Monday, August 25, 2014

10-Post Instagram Round-Up

I've only recently joined Instagram and one of the things I love about it is that you can find pictures of pretty much... well, anything! There's even an extensive list of Marie Antoinette related posts, which is why I'm trying out a new series of Instagram post round-ups where I will post 10 Instagram photos that catch my eye. I'm not sure if I'll be doing this weekly or just whenever the mood strikes, but for now, enjoy some of the great pictures I found this past week!

In no particular order:
  1. georgy1979: Collection of Marie Antoinette related books
  2. honeyponeymoney: Front view Versailles
  3. s.feesh: 18th century hairstyle illustration inspired by Marie Antoinette
  4. kasiacreations: Marie Antoinette illustration 
  5. lee_leng417: Marie Antoinette doll
  6. nana88440: Temple of Love from the Petit Trianon
  7. sophie_bel: Modernized Marie Antoinette illustration
  8. norawright: Fashionable Marie Antoinette illustration
  9. cha_wm: Sofia Coppola inspired Marie Antoinette illustration
  10. kasumiryo: Hand-painted Marie Antoinette bag

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A satirical print against Louis XVIII: 'The Terrible Burden.'


The above satirical print depicts Louis XVIII falling under the weight of a large double-labeled sack. The back half of the sack is labeled "the mistakes/faults of the Bourbons," while the much lighter front half is labeled "benefits of Louis XVIII."  

The print was released in May of 1815, during the 'Hundred Days' of Napoleon's return to French rule.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Illustrations from 'One Heart and Many Crowns: The Life of Empress Maria Theresa' by Brigitte Hamann

Ein Herz und viele Kronen: Das Leben der Kaiserin Maria Theresia (One Heart and Many Crowns: The Life of Empress Maria Theresa) by Brigitte Hamann is a German children's book about Maria Theresa of Austria.

The illustrations in the book are by Rolf Rettich, who has illustrated several children's books in Germany. I wanted to share some selected illustrations from the book that I have scanned, which I think have a lovely older charm to them.

The front and back of the book



A young Maria Theresa
 
 

Maria Theresa grieving her father


Maria Theresa and some of her children. Inspired by this portrait.


Maria Theresa in mourning for her husband