The royal palace of Versailles and its doomed queen Marie Antoinette get a new perspective in this French film, which covers the last fraught days of the monarchy through the eyes of a young woman serving as the queen’s official reader. While ultimately somewhat slight, the movie’s eavesdropping-on-history approach is compelling, and gains a lot from being shot at the real location.
The film begins on the morning of 14 July, 1789, a fateful date that will go down in history as Bastille Day. Behind the gates of the lavish Versailles, however, it’s just another morning for young Mademoiselle Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), who wakes up in her bare stone-walled servant quarters and hurries to her appointment with the queen (Diane Kruger). Their relationship is relaxed, but very much a master/servant one, with Marie Antoinette turning affection on and off on a whim. Sidonie however worships her mistress whole-heartedly and passionately, jumping at any chance to please. Completing the triangle of devotion is Gabrielle de Polignac, the queen’s favourite and apparent lover, an icy and shallow beauty whose true feelings are a source of much anguish and uncertainty for Marie Antoinette.
The next few days see the stability of the palace life fall apart, with the mounting sense of dread permeating both upstairs and downstairs. Because we never leave the confines of Versailles and Sidonie’s perspective, the terrible knowledge comes in bits of gossip, disquieting incidents and sinister flyers calling for the heads of the enemies of the Revolution. The servants and courtiers react in their different ways: some flee for their lives, some await whatever comes with resignation, others bury their heads in the sand and concentrate on frivolous things and tasks that soon won’t matter in the least.
There may not be a whole lot of depth to the movie, but it certainly delivers on the atmosphere, details and sumptuous visuals, plus there’s just something rather fascinating about watching the unravelling of an established order. The naturalistic lighting and freely moving camera keep the film well away from the stuffy period pieces, and Kruger’s Marie Antoinette is, for all her hedonism and self-centredness, a sad and sympathetic figure.