Benoît Jacquot's new film, Farewell to the Queen, presented at the Berlin Film Festival 2012, is eagerly awaited. Adapted from a successful historical novel by Chantal Thomas (Seuil, 2002), it recounts the days between July 14 and 17, 1789 seen through the prism of Versailles, and more particularly the gaze of Queen Marie-Antoinette's reader. . Added to this is the young woman's attraction for her sovereign, and her passion for the Duchess of Polignac. On the occasion of a preview organized by The story and the BNF, Benoît Jacquot explained to Antoine de Baecque his approach and his choices of adaptation and staging.
"The present is the time of cinema"
It was on the advice of Antoine de Baecque that Benoît Jacquot read Chantal Thomas's novel, when he had just finished Adolphe (after Benjamin Constant), with Isabelle Adjani. To his surprise, he quickly thinks he can make a film of it. However, he decided not to do like the book, to avoid flashback, a very cinematic process. For various reasons, notably financial, the film took several years to complete and the filmmaker, with his accomplice screenwriter Gilles Taurand, wrote several versions of the adaptation.
The first radical choice was to rejuvenate the main character, Sidonie, who is in her forties in Chantal Thomas' book, and Léa Seydoux's twenty-six years in the film. For Benoît Jacquot, this was necessary to "make sensitive the fragility, the vulnerability and the potential for blindness of the character". Regarding the flashback, the director decided to reject it because, according to him, "the present is the time of cinema". The choice was also made to stay with Sidonie permanently, "not to see anything other than what she sees, or cannot see".
As for the casting, if Benoît Jacquot immediately thought of Léa Seydoux for Sidonie, it was Diane Kruger who persuaded him to give him the role of Marie-Antoinette, just like Xavier Beauvois for Louis XVI.
"Marie-Antoinette fascinates me, but I don't like her"
The other fundamental character of the novel and the film is obviously Marie-Antoinette, a character so controversial and most often hated by the French. Benoît Jacquot himself admits: "this character fascinates me, interests me enormously, but I don't like him". What motivated the director was precisely this decisive moment when the queen went from "a character in the music hall to that of a martyred and tragic heroine". He even considers that Marie-Antoinette "placed an authentic crown on her head" in the days that the film narrates, after July 14, 1789, "while keeping her reflexes as a queen ̋ Sofiacoppolesque ̋ (sic)".
"How to make the past a present? "
The problem with a film, like a historical novel, is not to "betray" history at large. For Benoît Jacquot, the fundamental question was therefore: "how to make the past a present, how to give the past the presence of the present during film time?" ". He thus had to "avoid minimalism and the whole thing off, but also illustration and imagery". The problem also arose for the language, "naturalized, but still plausible for the time, while being directly accessible to the viewer".
Finally the sets, essential for a film taking place only in Versailles. The shooting in the castle took place on Monday (closing day) and at night, then in other locations. Benoît Jacquot insisted on shooting in real settings, and not in the studio, even if certain places no longer exist in Versailles itself, such as the attic or the servant's floors, which are very important in the plot.
Notice of History for all on Farewell to the Queen
First of all, let's sum up the plot: it is July 1789, and the young Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), like Versailles, is far from imagining that the Revolution is about to break out. Reader of Queen Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger), she experiences a secret passion for the latter that becomes more and more difficult to bear when the troubles erupt, but especially when her favorite, Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Dean). The young girl is then a witness and an actress of this forbidden passion, as well as of the way in which Versailles reacts to events outside, between incomprehension and panic.
We thus follow throughout the film the character played by Léa Seydoux, often filmed from behind, not far from the neck. She must listen to Marie-Antoinette's intimate confessions, then endure her whims and mood swings, and finally be humiliated out of love by taking her rival's place to save her, at the queen's request. To be honest, this (chaste) love triangle is not what is most exciting in the film by Benoît Jacquot, who still knows how to film women just as well. The actresses are not involved, quite the contrary (even if we ultimately see very little Virginie Ledoyen), but most of the film's interest lies elsewhere. We prefer to follow Sidonie in the attic and the maids' rooms, to see the Versailles anthill live, even in the apartments of pathetic nobles, who pray for a simple passage of the king, but live almost with the servants, and no longer know what to do when they are amazed to learn the turn of events (the nobles to behead list scene is tasty). The film passes regularly between its two worlds, with more porous borders than one might think, even if that of the king is hardly present. On the other hand, we are often in the queen’s apartments, and we must pay tribute to the decorations and costumes, sumptuous.
With skilful touches, Benoît Jacquot shows the disconnection of the court as a whole (nobles and servants) from the History that is being written outside of Versailles. The passionate story between Marie-Antoinette and Gabrielle, as well as the thwarted love of Sidonie, are almost incidental even if we feel that the director wants to make the link, in particular by showing the very changing attitude of the queen towards -vis of his reader, and the humiliation she inflicts on him, thus marking a real social difference, almost “of class”, despite a certain shared intimacy.
A beautiful film, which we will therefore recommend for its subtle portrayal of Versailles at the turn of history, and its actresses, more than for its love story.
- Farewell to the Queen, by Benoît Jacquot (2012), with Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, Virginie Ledoyen. In theaters March 21, 2012.