“Farewell, My Queen,” Benoît Jacquot’s tense, absorbing, pleasurably original look at three days in the life and lies of a doomed monarch, opens with a young woman shaking off sleep and scratching mosquito bites on her arm. It’s a lovely arm, as no less than Marie Antoinette (the well-cast Diane Kruger) proclaims. The young woman is Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux, fittingly recessive), who serves as the queen’s reader. Smitten as well as bitten, Sidonie adores the queen and luxuriates in her good graces. Sidonie also reads plays, novels and even fashion magazines to the queen as Marie Antoinette lazes in her bed at Versailles, pretty as a Fragonard picture while France violently seethes.
France hadn’t fully erupted when Sidonie wakes at dawn on July 14, 1789, the day the Bastille fell. For Sidonie, the morning seems like any other with an early rise, a splash of lavender water and a jittery dash to the queen’s quarters.
On her way, Sidonie slips to the ground, suggesting her subservience and foreshadowing the greater fall to come. As usual in this deftly handled movie, Jacquot doesn’t linger on the obvious, in this case her tumble, but cuts to Sidonie looking around, as if to see if anyone has noticed.
At Versailles, etiquette was all. And “life at court,” the 17th-century moralist Jean de La Bruyère wrote, “is a serious, melancholy game.”
It’s a game that grows progressively more dangerous as the minutes race by in this efficiently plotted movie, which was written by Jacquot and Gilles Taurand and based on a novel by the French writer Chantal Thomas.
Not for nothing does Jacquot set the movie’s first major sequence in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at Versailles, using it as a stage to introduce some of the larger dramas unfolding at the palace.
If the rules and the players of this continuing, increasingly dangerous court intrigue remain obscure, it’s because “Farewell, My Queen” is told through Sidonie’s eyes.
She isn’t a privileged witness to history, but she’s resourceful. Tapping her palace sources, notably an archivist (Michel Robin) and a dressmaker (Anne Benoît), Sidonie learns of news known only to the nobility and their trusted stewards: that the Bastille has been seized. “What will happen to us?” she asks, eyes wide.
Her limited knowledge combined with what history tells us invests the movie with the shiver of a murder mystery. Like everyone else she doesn’t have the answer to that question, but the fear in their faces suggests that they already know.