In 2006 Sophia Coppola brought a version of the story of Marie Antoinette to the screen, a lush commentary on the dangers of excess, with the Queen of France played by Kirsten Dunst. Here it’s Diane Kruger playing the spoilt Austrian wife of Louis XVI, but the story – as the title suggests – belongs to someone else. Based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, it is the Queen’s reader, a young woman named Sidonie (Lea Seydoux) who is the central character, and the film plays out over the four days after the storming of the Bastille, with Sidonie called to help amuse Maria Antoinette whilst the revolution gets underway. It’s a strangely mixed film, sliding from intimate scenes of royal indolence to muted panic in candlelit corridors, a distinct undercurrent of detached uncertainty always present in both story and style.
Seydoux (watch out for her in this year’s Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour) plays Sidonie as a devoted and thoughtful servant to Marie Antoinette, respectful of the Queen’s variable behaviour and mood swings, but not above some assertiveness when the news of the fall of the Bastille echoes around the Palace. Caught between the vague desire for self-preservation and an unquestioned loyalty to the nobility, Sidonie becomes witness to the erratic goings on both upstairs and downstairs, as the Ancien Regime begins to crumble. She visits better-connected servants in search of information, overhears fragments of plans for escape, and watches as nobles disappear in the night, frighted by a list that sets out the names of those wanted for the guillotine. Sidonie also acts as go between for the Queen and her closest friend, The Duchess of Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), a relationship that suggests more than a hint of sexuality.
Director Benoit Jacquot keeps a very light touch on this wandering, whispering tale, and Sidonie remains an enigmatic heroine with an indistinct personality, perhaps as a dedicated servant of the upper classes might be when her world is poised to disappear. Much is observed as Romain Winding’s constantly moving cinematography flows (and zooms) through the Palace, the style of the film caught somewhere between cinema verite and theatre. Little of substance condenses around any of the characters or plot lines. Snippets of story start here and there (Sidonie’s attraction to the smouldering Palace gondolier, the King’s political problems, the Queen’s attraction to Sidonie) but never do any of these threads find a satisfactory equilibrium. The pleasure is rather in the performances of Jacquot’s strong female cast, all playing characters dealing with the sense of unease that accompany the shadows of the barbarians at the gates and the far away sound of the fin de siecle.