August 3, 2012
Two movies about two different queens of two different Versailles hit local indie art houses today. Though one focuses on the most famous queen of Versailles: Marie Antoinette and another a wannabe queen of capitalism in today’s socioeconomic climate, the parallels between the two films are compelling.
Farewell, My Queen provides a glimpse into the final days leading up to Antoinette’s flight from Versailles after the storming of the Bastille by the people. The Queen of Versailles, meanwhile, examines the financial downfall of a wealthy Orlando, Florida family who has to stop the construction of what would have been the largest house in the United States, based on the floor plan of Versailles.
Marie Antoinette’s story seems almost mythic in its lessons of decadence. Yet, people never seem to learn, as the great empire of the United States of America now seems to barrel toward oligarchical rule, and the class divide grows more and more real. From the US government’s struggle to balance human versus corporate rights to the programming that celebrates the rich and famous on TV, you’re either rich or you want to be rich. Just to side-track into another film-to-film comparison, look at the French production of Farewell, My Queen compared to the American-made, Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, both films offer distinct views on that icon of France’s history. Coppola seems to celebrate the decadence and paint Marie as a victim of her fate, while indulging in a beautiful mise-en-scène. Meanwhile, Benoît Jacquot, the French-born director of Farewell, My Queen is of the French socialist majority who will not soon forget the starving of the people under the decadent reign of King Louis XVI and his queen.
Farewell, My Queen covers the last few days of Louis XVI at Versailles. Day one of the film features some grand sweeping shots of the royal grounds. The colors, light and shadow are so brilliantly contrasted the scenes look like paintings. It’s July 14, 1789. If you are not French, you might have to read up on French history to understand the significance of the date marks the start of the French revolution with the storming of the Bastille, now known as Bastille Day. One key point about the French people’s rise against the monarchy that has resonance today is a tax that was unfairly distributed, hitting the poorest hardest.
We never see this majority that rebelled depicted in Farewell, My Queen. They only “appear” in threatening letters to Versailles naming the nobles the people wanted to see beheaded. Hints of the monarchy’s slipping control appear in the form of dead rats that float in the canals on the property where even servants can relax in a gondola ride. Servants also complain of being served stale bread. “Some people make it last a week,” a kitchen server tells the girl Louison (Lolita Chammah - Daughter of Isabelle Huppert!), one of Antoinette’s handmaidens.
The film is actually most focused on Louison’s roommate, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), another handmaiden, who seems to be a favorite of the queen. Sidonie seems an obedient girl but also sycophantic, passively trying to get close to the queen. Sidonie seems to treasure the gold-leafed clock the queen has given her to wake her up on time to come read to her, and it stands out in her modest servant quarters.
Diane Kruger plays Antoinette as a fragile lunatic on the verge of falling to pieces as her empire crumbles around her. She is the embodiment of social disconnectedness, almost catatonic and sickened by the fancy garbs and gorgeous rooms she must inhabit. The sets and costumes look gorgeous through the lens of cinematographer Romain Winding, but weigh heavy on the queen. Kruger gives an ethereal performance.
Despite the film’s almost oppressive ornate quality and the impending revolution at Versaille’s door, Sidonie remains devout. When it comes time to help Antoinette’s dear friend and implied lover, Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac (Léa Seydoux), leave Versailles, Sidonie is willing to put her own life on the line to help in a scheme protecting her from the bloody-thirsty masses.
While Farewell, My Queen seems a slow-burn take of the burden of riches, The Queen of Versailles is a sprightly piece by comparison. Documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield focuses her lens on the Siegels, the patriarch of whom is currently suing Greenfield for misrepresenting his timeshare empire as a crumbling mess (Read “New York Times” piece). But David Siegel, like Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette, seems a bit player to his wife, former model and mother of eight, Jackie Siegel. During the quick-paced opening, a newspaper headline flashes on the screen: “It’s good to be the Queen,” just as Jackie is introduced. At first, the film seems focused on the half-finished mansion David, 74, aims to build for his 43-year-old wife. Once complete, it will be the largest house in America, and it just happens to be based on the palace of Versailles. But the film soon turns into something more profound: a surreal reflection of the common man extending his credit into bankruptcy, a symptom that led to the Great Recession of 2008.
Both of the Siegels never make any apologies for their extravagance. “Everyone wants to be rich,” Jackie says. “If not, they want to feel rich, and if not, then they’re probably dead.” That line would probably have some resonance over poor Sidonie who tries to stay by her queen’s side to the bitter end. Of course, everyone knows how it ended for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (spoiler alert: they were beheaded).
Meanwhile, David believes he put George W. Bush in office. He then adds, with a nonchalant laugh, that must mean he is also responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So who cares about the loss of life there? Not the Siegels… that much.
Lost in her own cloud of blinding, never-ending riches, it never occurs to Jackie that it might be a challenge to maintain eight children until her husband tells her she needs to cut back. She says she just kept having the kids because it would be fun. Why should she care when she has a devoted live-in nanny? The nanny, Virginia Nebab, lives in a miniature playhouse outside the Siegel’s home. Inside the playhouse, which the daughters of Siegels didn’t care much for, Nebab must fold up a cot to walk around. She talks about having to sacrifice raising her own kids back home in the Philippines to work in the US and send money home. Though she left her son when he was 6 years old, 20 years ago, and has not seen him since, she says, “It’s OK. I still have kids. The Siegel kids,” and then wipes tears from her eyes.
Both films prove something horrible about greed: it’s dehumanizing quality. All of these people seem out of touch. When his timeshare leasing empire falls on hard times, David spends all his time cooped up in his dark office at home trying to crunch numbers and save the derelict Versailles II. His wife has to coax him to the diner table to sit with the children for dinner on his birthday. When asked if he gets any strength from his marriage. He says plainly after a pause: “No.”
Both films are quite different in tone. Farewell, My Queen offers a sombre, steady countdown to the end of an empire. Meanwhile, the Queen of Versailles has an ironic, almost black humor. Still, both offer a powerful focus on the consequences of decadence. You feel the ignorance of that famous, almost flip statement by Antoinette hanging over both films: “Let them eat cake.”
Trailer for Farewell, My Queen:
Trailer for The Queen of Versailles:
The Queen of Versailles is Rated PG, runs 100 min. It opens today, Aug. 3 at the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and O Cinema in Miami and then on Aug. 10 at the Cosford Cinema.