The French Revolution has been portrayed many times before on screen but never in quite oblique a way as in Benoit Jacquot’s film.
This is a very well observed study of social breakdown and decay set over four days in July 1789, seen from the perspective of palace servant Sidonie Laborde (the pouting young French actress Lea Seydoux.)
There are no tumbrels or guillotines. Court life in Versailles is carrying on just about as normal but we are always aware of the mounting sense of panic. Even as they adhere to courtly rituals, the courtiers can smell and feel that their way of life is coming to end. The costume and production design deliberately show the cracks beginning to appear. Versailles is magnificent but under director Benoit Jacquot’s close-up gaze, we see that everything is past its best. Even Marie Antoinette (played with a winning mix of haughtiness and vulnerability by Diane Kruger) has to fuss about her dresses and wigs.
At times, the film plays like one of those overwrought studies of friendship, betrayal and Sapphic longing in a boarding school. (Certain scenes are strangely reminiscent of Jordan Scott’s underrated girls’ school drama Cracks.) Marie Antoinette comes across like the head girl. She has a crush on Gabrielle De Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), who pretends to return her devotion but whose real obsession is herself. Marie Antoinette is distracted and agitated, not just because her life is under threat but because she can’t trust Gabrielle. Sidonie’s job is to read to the Queen and to console her when Gabrielle is out of reach.
In stories of regime change and social meltdown, there are always comical moments. Jacquot throws in sequences of deaf old aristocrats scurrying down the corridors of the Palace, desperately trying to work out where their servants have gone. The threat of catastrophe doesn’t stop the romantic conspiracies. Even with the mob at the gates, Sidone is still trying to arrange knee-trembling trysts with the good looking Italian servant Paolo.
In extreme circumstances, human nature is shown at its most venal. Aristocrats try to pass themselves off as peasants. Old loyalties are forgotten as they plot their escape. The atmosphere is like that in Paris in 1940, just before the Nazis arrive.
Jacquot, who adapted the film from the Chantal Thomas novel, doesn’t have any grand political statements to make. He is not trying to make a sweeping melodrama either. His approach is more like that of an anthropologist, studying a tribe in its death throes. The result is quietly fascinating.