Halfway through the 62nd installment of the Berlin Film Festival, no single film has emerged to carry the fest’s top prizes. The international jury, this year’s headed by British director Mike Leigh, will have a difficult time distributing the Gold and Silver bears if the competition fare remains this lackluster.
Benoît Jacquot’s French-Revolution drama, Les Adieux à la Reine was the firing shot in a festival year that is taking a hard look at the cataclysmic political and social changes gripping the Middle East. In the festival’s supporting programs, Forum and Panorama, the Arab Spring is amply represented by documentaries and features from throughout the Arab world. In the competition selection, however, themes of insurrection are alluded to only in Jacquot’s lushly-designed look at the fall of the ancién regime.
Les Adieux à la Reine, the director’s twentieth feature, is sure to please viewers who are sympathetic to Jacquot’s intense, arguably fetishistic focus on young female protagonists. His version of Versailles is replete with specimens of girlish beauty and allure, including Diane Kruger, Léa Seydoux (pictured; she will be familiar to American audiences from Inglorious Basterds) and Virginie Ledoyen (the star of Jacquot’s 1995 film, A Single Girl).
Adapted from a novel by Chantal Thomas, the film narrates the turmoil at Versailles in the week following the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. The story’s main lens is Sidonie Laborde (Seydoux), a palace servant who becomes infatuated with Marie-Antoinette (Kruger). The queen, sensing Laborde’s affection and dedication, makes the girl her confidante, to whom she confesses her deepest yearnings for the Duchess of Polignac (Ledoyen). It is common knowledge both at court and in Paris that Polignac is the queen’s favorite, a fact that earns the noble a high-up place on a revolutionary list of heads that need cutting off.
As Versailles descends into chaos, the queen is most concerned with losing the object of her affection and uses her trusting servant as bait to spirit the duchess to safety out of France. Jacquot is skillful at mediating between the film’s various centers as historical epic, upstairs-downstairs drama and romantic love-triangle, but the finished product is less than satisfying, due to the underwritten part of Polignac, who remains aloof and mysterious for much of the film (I counted five words out of Ledoyen’s mouth) and Jacquot’s insistence of revealing to us a host of interesting, but ultimately distracting, behind-the-scenes developments involving betrayals, elopements, couplings and thefts –run-of-the-mill activities that persist even in times of revolution.