In our new series Stream Team, Guardian Australia’s arts writers dig out their favourite hidden gems of streaming to help you while away some isolated hours.
It’s the summer of 1789 and people in cities are mad about the unequal distribution of supplies. That’s where we find ourselves at the opening of Benoît Jacquot’s 2012 film Farewell, My Queen, following three days in Versailles on the eve of the French revolution.
Now streaming on SBS On Demand, the plot of the French-language film revolves around a servant, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), who is the reader (or “assistant reader”, as she is reminded by more senior servants) to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger).
Farewell, My Queen initially invites its audience into a lush world in which every woman is the most beautiful woman you have ever seen. Affairs are conducted in public and looks are longingly exchanged in corridors. It’s a universe of embroidered silk gowns, violet perfume, delicate hair ribbons, tiny cakes and walks in sun-drenched, manicured gardens. Coffee is described as tasting like “bitter velvet” and is drunk while tucked up among floral sheets in four-poster beds. Noblewomen cluster in dark corners and whisper sweet nothings to each other – this movie features many scenes of French women just breathing on each other. Marie Antoinette has fashion magazines read to her when she wakes up, while people holding empty bowls are shooed away from the palace’s golden gates. Historical spoiler: all of this decadence won’t last for long.
Less than 10 minutes into the film the tide is beginning to turn for the royal family. Sidonie, who harbours a passionate loyalty to the queen, doesn’t understand it. Other servants grumble about having to stitch tapestries and run ridiculous errands, but Sidonie thinks her job feels like “a journey into a magical land”. She is jealous when an Italian gondolier tells her that the queen is having an affair with the Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). When an older woman of the court casually mentions, “Hey, I hear there’s not much bread in Paris,” Sidonie snaps, “Stop talking nonsense!” And then suddenly it’s the morning of 15 July, and footmen are carrying valuables out of Versailles and servants are whispering about some ruckus at the Bastille last night.
Even if you’re not into period dramas (I don’t understand you, but your business is your own) the decadence and degradation of Farewell, My Queen will probably still appeal. Like The Favourite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Marie Antoinette, it feels a little edgier, with a slightly more modern sensibility than other corset-heavy dramas.
Even though we know, thanks to history, where the story ends, Farewell, My Queen still manages to feel like a workplace thriller. We don’t spend much time with Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI; instead we spend it with the ladies’ maids and palace librarians who rush around dark corridors, anguished faces illuminated by candlelight, wondering if the revolutionaries will want to dispose of them too.
“What will happen to us?” a wide-eyed Sidonie asks the librarian, suddenly realising that her employer might not be so popular on the outside. When pamphlets start circulating with a list of heads that need to be cut off for France to be renewed, the nobles also scramble to escape or wait anxiously for the king and queen’s instructions while tense violin music screeches in the background.
Sidonie, disgusted that so much blame is being placed on Marie Antoinette and shocked that the ladies who were sucking up to her a week ago are now riffling through her undies to see what they can sell, also has her loyalty tested.
Farewell, My Queen isn’t exactly relaxing, but something about stories of extremely wealthy people not sharing their resources feels essential at this moment. Also, look at the dresses!