For our inaugural edition of Snark Week, I wrote a rant about all the things I hated about Farewell, My Queen (2012). I stand by all seven of my ranty points, but as I recently read the book on which the movie is based, I was interested in rewatching and re-reviewing the film. So, here’s my slightly more nuanced and comprehensive review!
First, I’ll say that the book is GREAT. If you’re at all interested in this period and, particularly, court life at Versailles, I highly recommend reading it. Essentially, the story is told through the (fictional) eyes of Marie-Antoinette’s reader, and it recounts the breakdown of the Versailles system over the few days surrounding the fall of the Bastille. It’s an amazing window into life at Versailles for the “average” courtier, and avoids many of the problems that the movie introduced. The author (Chantal Thomas) is an academic and has written scholarly publications on Marie-Antoinette, so she knows her stuff. And the book is just well written and engaging.
Now, let’s turn to the film, which was co-written by Thomas and directed by Benoît Jacquot, who also directed Diary of a Chambermaid (2015). Léa Seydoux plays Sidonie, reader to Marie-Antoinette, which means she goes to the queen when called and reads out loud to her.
The film takes place over several specific days, and we get to see Sidonie’s life — the small room in which she sleeps, the excitement of being called for by the queen (who Sidonie adores, but from a fan/idol sort of perspective), interacting with friends (who are also high placed servants), eating in the communal kitchen, etc.
As news filters into the palace about the fall of the Bastille (initially a secret, then there’s tons of misinformation and confusion) we see what was a well-ordered machine fall apart — nobles up at night talking in the hallways in their nightclothes, servants who don’t come when rung for. In particular, Sidonie is called to Marie-Antoinette at several times, where she observes key moments that flesh out the character of the queen (played by Diane Kruger — probably too pretty for the role, but whatever).
There’s two plot points that annoy me, neither of which are in the book thankfully:
#1: Sidonie is enlisted by Rose Bertin, marchande des modes (dressmaker/milliner) to the queen, to embroider a sample for a dress the queen wants made. I actually think it’s cool to see Rose Bertin on film, and she’s a great character to introduce into the story. The problems I have are:
a) It’s totally random that the queen’s reader would be called on to do embroidery
b) The design that she embroiders (a dahlia) is SO not done in an 18th-century aesthetic…
…and c) The whole embroidery process is just portrayed in an overly precious manner. On the other hand, you get to see some fashion plates from the Magasin des Modes, a real fashion magazine of the time, and the queen’s dress book, in which were kept fabric samples for all of her dresses so she could choose which ones to wear.
#2: Oh, weirdly handled lesbianism! I ranted about this in my Snark Week post, but I need to more clearly explain my issues. There’s a lot of focus in the film on Gabrielle, Duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) and the intense relationship she had with the queen. On the one hand, it’s true that the two had a crazy-intense friendship, that Polignac was blamed for Marie-Antoinette’s bad reputation, and that there was definitely a romantic element to their relationship. In fact, there were numerous pamphlets and jokes that called out the two for having a lesbian relationship, and it’s a real factor in why the public turned so much against Marie-Antoinette. And it’s nice in that you see how much Marie-Antoinette is the driving force — she’s attracted to Gabrielle and pursues the relationship, not vice versa. And the two never kiss or actually get it on, which I doubt they would have done. Same-sex relationships were generally less defined and less feared than they were from the early 20th-century onwards, and so I’m glad that the director didn’t go full girl-on-girl.
On the other hand, there’s a scene where Sidonie pulls back Polignac’s blankets (Polignac is passed out due to opium), and we see her naked body in a way that’s just overly graphic. And Marie-Antoinette talks to Sidonie about being “attracted to” Polignac in a way that just seems too straight-on for 18th-century understandings of same-sex relationships. I just wish they’d either better fleshed out this relationship or not gone there.
There’s also another scene with some uncomfortable nudity, when Sidonie is forced to completely disrobe in front of the queen. It’s a plot point that in no way required a beaver shot, but we get one!
And now, costumes. I justifiably called out the majority of the costumes in my Snark Week post, but let’s get into it again — and finally, praise the one costume I thought was actually shockingly great.
The costumes were designed by Christian Gasc, who also fucked things up in Ridicule (1996) and Madame Bovary (2014) and who seems to have a fetish for back-lacing (whyyyyyyyyyy??!!). Let’s look at a bunch of specific costumes in-depth, working from minor to major characters and sidebar-ing into hair/wigs. I’ll (mostly) leave the upsettingly-costumed extras to my Snark Week rant.
Mme Campan’s One and Only Dress
I really hate the trope of moderately-well-off-character-who-only-owns-one-dress. Madame Campan was the chief lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. She Would Have Owned More Than One Dress.
Moving on… okay, so the dress fits fine, and the cutaway/zone front overgown is very fashionable for the late 1780s.
I’m not loving the machine-embroidered fabric, but that’s a personal quibble. With an educated eye, machine-embroidered fabrics just look so modern — but to someone who isn’t very well versed in historical fabrics and embroidery techniques, it’s a good approximation of a late 18th-century embroidered fabric.
The proverbial back-closure raises its ugly head, which is illogical not just because they didn’t close gowns in back in this era, but also because THE OVERGOWN IS ALREADY OPEN IN FRONT (that cutaway. Is an opening.).
Rose Bertin’s One and Only Dress
Rose Bertin. Famed marchande de modes (shorthand: dressmaker. Complicated explanation: female stylists who designed gowns, particularly the trimmings and accessories. The gowns themselves were made by lower-status women) to the queen and EVERYONE in the know. WOULD NOT OWN ONLY ONE DRESS.
It’s another cutaway/zone front overgown, with great buttons down the center front… which is where it should close, but I’m not holding my breath.
Louis XVI’s Gold Suit
Why is menswear so much less easy to fuck up? This suit is nice — follows the right lines for the era, the color is very kingly, and the embroidery adds richness.
Okay, so his suit isn’t the most cutting edge in terms of style, but Louis wasn’t exactly a cutting-edge fashionable guy.
Louis XVI’s Blue Suit
I REALLY love this suit. On screen he wears it with a gold waistcoat (the same one from his gold suit?), but on display it has a matching waistcoat. Again, the lines are right and I like the color combination — pale colors were very popular in this era, but the gold embroidery/waistcoat help make it look rich.
I think the embroidery/trim combo is an excellent example of a modern theatrical approach to a quite-decent 18th century impression. They used gold trim to flesh out the machine embroidery, and it adds a level of complexity to the overall effect.
Duchesse de Polignac’s Gold Gown
If I let go of my personal opposition to machine-embroidered fabrics, sure, whatever. I like the use of stripes in the undergown, especially the angled stripes on the stomacher/underbodice. The designer clearly loved asymmetrical fabric roses, as everyone’s got ’em — it’s not a late 18th-century aesthetic, but it does add richness and complexity.
Duchesse de Polignac’s Green Gown
Oh god, this dress. I ranted about the color in my Snark Week post, so know that I have all the feels about it and let’s discuss everything ELSE wrong with it.
Okay, so first of all, you’ve got another obviously machine-embroidered fabric for the undergown (stomacher/underbodice and petticoat).
And then some huge, clunky gold buttons:
What really kills me about this sucker is the weird partlet (I don’t know what else to call it??!! A partlet being a neckline fill-in worn in the 16th century; yes they wore fichus aka neck handkerchiefs in the 18th century, but they were white and gauzy and totally separate from the bodice — take a look at the portrait of Madame Campan above for an example) thingie made from the SAME FABRIC AS THE UNDERGOWN. First of all, it’s sewn into the dress and cut completely wrong in front:
And then it goes around to the top back of the dress! WTF?
Sidonie’s One and Only Dress
So Sidonie isn’t a housemaid, she’s a servant of some rank, but I guess it works out okay that she only has ONE dress to her name. Maybe. I don’t know.
I ranted about the back-lacing closure and the inappropriate stripe layout in my Snark Week post. Here I’ll just add that this nubby fabric (silk dupioni) isn’t historically accurate before about the 1950s.
I would like to point out that they went to all the trouble to add a button closure to the center front. Which is plenty to close the dress. Making all those lacing holes in back a total waste of time.
Hey, at least they left the metal grommets to the extras…
But what’s further hilarious to me is that there is then a scene where Sidonie is undressed by Rose Bertin, and they GO AHEAD AND OPEN HER DRESS FROM THE FRONT. THE WAY IT SHOULD BE DONE. WHY ARE THOSE BACK LACING HOLES THERE ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL ME
However, seeing Sidonie get undressed shows you that at least this character in this scene isn’t wearing a corset. Which is completely wrong for the era.
I do like that she’s wearing a padded, sectioned rump (worn on the high hip, to fluff out the skirts), as you can see here when Rose Bertin is holding her clothes:
Initially I thought that Sidonie actually had two outfits, one of which was this jacket… but then I realized she wears it over her One and Only Dress.
The jacket itself is fine, with the kind of wide collars you see in the era.
And the fabric is interesting.
It’s just that from my research, jackets weren’t worn the way we do, as outerwear. They’d be worn instead of a gown, and then you’d have some kind of cloak as outerwear if it were cold.
Marie-Antoinette’s Cream Gown
I guess you can call this a robe à l’anglaise, and it’s fine. The light color certainly sets off the queen from other characters. Yet again we’ve got the cutaway/zone front, and the super wide panniers indicate that it’s a formal scene.
However, THAT WIG. Okay, so it doesn’t suck as a high 1770s style, although the style details aren’t great and IT IS 1789 AND THEY WEREN’T WEARING LATE 1770S WIGS A DECADE LATER. But the filmmakers are trying to show Marie-Antoinette in a very formal, artificial situation.
What kills me is the scene where an attendant takes off the wig, and all of Marie-Antoinette’s hair just streams out all long and unbound. Um, YOU CAN’T WEAR A FULL WIG AND JUST SHOVE YOUR HAIR UNDERNEATH. THE WIG WILL FALL OFF. YOU HAVE TO 1. SECURE YOUR OWN HAIR AND THEN 2. SECURE THE WIG TO YOUR HAIR. THIS IS PHYSICS, PEOPLE.
Marie-Antoinette’s Chemise à la Reine
Our Sarah wasn’t as offended by this take on the chemise à la reine as I thought she would be. That style of dress was super popular in this era and particularly associated with Marie-Antoinette, so it’s great that she’s wearing one! It’s just, it should be made from a super thin fabric and all gathered lightness, not weirdly structured as it is here.
Marie-Antoinette’s Dressing Gown
I do like that this dressing gown is sort of Turkish in the line of the front (Turkish styles being hugely influential in this era), and the (faux?) turnbacks along the skirt openings are cute.
And now, the one, shockingly fabulous costume!
This dress would probably be considered a lévite. The lévite is a weird style — super popular in the late 18th century, but there are multiple forms that seem very different from each other. Nonetheless, the designer did right in my opinion by depicting a super popular style that we don’t see very often on screen, and made it up perfectly. This version of the lévite is characterized by a sort of formalized dressing gown look: you’d think it’s a standard gown of the era, except for the wide collars and sash… and it’s a very close cousin/sister/etc. to the redingote, which had a very similar look.
On top of that, the triangular, tooth-like trimming — a style called “à la harpie” — and V-shaped back to the collar are straight out of fashion plates of the time. And, I’m pretty sure the dress is directly based on a real late 18th century painting…
On the other hand… ugh. Most of the hairstyles in this film are your basic ye oldey-timey updo, which, hey, they found their bobby pins! And I can see what they thought they were going for with this style, with the wide halo of curls and the long ringlets coming forward over the shoulder. They just totally borked the execution. Look at all the real portraits of these characters above and you’ll see what it should look like. Then please to enjoy:
Have you seen Farewell, My Queen? What do you think of the costumes?