If film critics often note how the French film industry has more to offer actresses — of all ages — than Hollywood movies do, it’s because the disparity seems to be getting more noticeable all the time. (If you don’t watch movies with subtitles, you might never notice, of course.)
Shuttling between French and American films for my Movie Analyst assignments sometimes feels like moving between separate universes in this regard. It’s unpleasant to see how even a modestly budgeted American indie like the recent Goats (Christopher Neil, 2012) suffers from a smug, unexamined sexism, with female roles that squander the talents of Vera Farmiga and Keri Russell, whereas Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen has no less than three great roles for actresses, as well as a couple of vivid supporting parts to boot.
The movie depicts the court at Versailles during four days in July 1789, and centers on Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), her 20-year-old reader Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), and the queen’s “favorite,” the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). All three actresses are extremely well cast and help keep this smartly paced movie lively, to say the least.
In a New York Times story shortly before the film’s U.S. release, 65-year-old director Jacquot was impressively candid about the way his filmmaking is driven by his interest in his lead actresses: “I can’t imagine filming an actress without having some kind of amorous link with her… Even if it’s just one scene, there’s something amorous about the act of filming a woman.” The male gaze of a million Film Studies lectures baldly stated, you might think.
But Jacquot’s interest extends much deeper than, say, choosing the optimum angle from which to photograph Megan Fox working under the hood of her car. His fascination includes curiosity, and empathy. In the case of Farewell, My Queen, the director’s attention to his leading ladies is well suited to a story of intrigue in a feminized circle of power behind the throne, and the fraught relationships therein. The director is hardly mooning over a collection of pinups here; Jacquot and his co-writer Gilles Taurand (adapting a French bestseller by Chantal Thomas) are fascinated by the dynamics between these women.
The script builds to the moment where Sidonie watches in secret as Marie Antoinette pours her heart out to her beloved Gabrielle. It’s clear that Marie Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois) is no emotional outlet for her, whereas in these private moments with Gabrielle she’s flushed with emotion, almost swooning. Being alone with Gabrielle is the only release Marie has, thus their exchange becomes supercharged with feeling.
Part of the scene’s intensity surely comes from the director as well, fixated on his actresses. Jacquot keeps the camera close in on Kruger and Ledoyen, underscoring the intimacy of the moment. The camera keeps panning back and forth between the two women — it’s as if in this moment Jacquot was overwhelmed, as if there was just too much for him to take in here.
For more on Farewell, My Queen, click here.