As a film critic, I’ve seen a lot of movies about Marie Antoinette, and inevitably, the discussion boils down to two questions: was France’s most infamous queen a slut or was she a lesbian? The thrilling new movie from director Benoît Jacquot seeks to answer the question, though I’m not entirely sure that the issue has been even partly resolved. And in this case that’s a very good thing.
The historical record on the sexual dalliances of historical figures is a sensitive issue and rarely reaches beyond the level of hearsay. But this movie is not derived from a history book, it is based upon the novel by Chantal Thomas and is about the relationship between a lady-in-waiting named Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) and Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). There is clearly more going on here than meets the eye, though it would still seem a stretch to say that the queen was a lesbian whose only interest in men was in wielding power.
Power is, of course, fleeting for Queen Marie. Lucky for us, this is not a movie about the French Revolution. It is contained primarily to the early days of the revolution and is set mostly in the backrooms of the palace where ladies-in-waiting, men-at-arms, and palace servants present a decidedly more sordid tale that we are accustomed to when it comes to the French Revolution (and let’s face it, that’s a pretty darn sordid story to begin with).
The movie works, and splendidly so, because though it has the look and feel of a costume drama, it tears away the facade of the genre on any occasion it can. Diane Kruger plays Marie as more of a rebel than a corrupt virago, bringing the audience to cheer for her in unexpected ways. But the movie belongs to Seydoux who makes Sidonie go from silent observer to reluctant heroine. This is her story, whether she likes it or not, and her proximity to power leads her to both revelation and revolution.