Dead rats turn up repeatedly in “Farewell, My Queen” — symbolic stand-ins for the courtiers who will soon flee Versailles, as from a sinking ship, in the days following July 14, 1789. That’s Bastille Day, y’all.
A satisfyingly intimate you-are-there look at the quiet, then frenzied, implosion of the French royal court, “Farewell” offers a narrow point of view through the eyes of servant Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux). She’s a young woman whose job is to read aloud to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Yes, the queen is perfectly literate herself. But it amuses her to let Sidonie play-act with her as they read a Marivaux play together or declaim the latest news about fashion trends (the People magazine porn of its time).
Viewing her employer with a mixture of adoration and skepticism, Sidonie is working-class, but shrewd, politic and well-connected. When a noblewoman enlists her to embroider a trifle for the queen, instead of traditional payment Sidonie demands to hear news about the uprisings in Paris. She’s ahead of the curve in a gilded court too obsessed with protocol and gossip to notice the proximate flash of the guillotine.
Think “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” minus the meta-snarky wit, and you’ll have a sense of this movie’s approach. Oh, and to get the whole picture, add in a layer of suppressed lesbian passion. “Farewell” posits that Marie Antoinette is a total fou for palace hanger-on Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen, the star of “Farewell” director Benoît Jacquot’s 1995 international calling card, “A Single Girl”). If Sidonie is politically savvy, Gabrielle has her beat to the nth degree; she maintains a courtly distance that makes the unrequited queen pant and puff even more than Pepe le Pew.
So, yes, “Farewell, My Queen” gets its biggest superficial kicks from sapphic ooh-la-la. It treats as fact some of the scandal-sheet rumors that brought the monarchy down, when the hoi polloi imagined the French royals getting up to even worse things behind closed doors than anything in those “Shades of Grey” books.
If you happened to read the adorably embarrassing New York Times interview with director Jacquot a couple of weeks ago, you know that, well into his 60s, he’s still a knee-knocked slave to an awestruck passion for the ladies. Good for him. He serves his actresses well here — even if he takes a completely gratuitous interlude to let the camera ogle Ledoyen, lying in bed as God made her.
The movie’s true value is its fly-on-the-wall look at hands-on life in Versailles, and in its quietly ruthless examination of the gulf between the aristocracy and the servants whom they treat as friends … until it no longer serves their needs. Languorous at first, “Farewell” expertly begins turning the screws as it covers three days in that fateful, fatal summer. (Bruno Coulais’ score, sounding like sub-Bernard Hermann, flutters restlessly under the action.)
As Sidonie, Seydoux is not an especially expressive actor. But her passive, model-worthy pout somehow feels right for the role, balanced between innocent and insolent. Kruger, on the other hand, seems almost too smart as Marie Antoinette; she seems constrained in a reductive interpretation of the historical figure, but as always she’s a pleasure to watch. The movie’s MVP is Noémie Lvovsky as the queen’s chief lady-in-waiting — a woman who comes across sometimes as a comic figure, but who sees more clearly even than Sidonie the lovely, lying malice that’s devouring the monarchy from the inside out.
“Farewell, My Queen.” With Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, Virginie Ledoyen. Directed by Benoît Jacquot. In French with subtitles. Rated R. 99 minutes. At UA Tara Cinemas 4. Originally scheduled to open in Atlanta on July 20, the film’s local release date is July 27.