Control is the operative element in Benoît Jacquot's work, with the main caveat being that when someone has it, someone else does not. This prevailing concept sets the stage for detailed examinations of interpersonal power dynamics, presented as games or struggles, with an acute eye toward the roles and responsibilities of women. In his best films, like 1997's Seventh Heaven, these battles are conveyed with restrained craftiness, so much so that they're often imperceptible, subtle tugs of war that result in marked changes to the balance of authority.
The collapse occurring in Farewell, My Queen is more sustained and dramatic, set inside Louis XVI's royal court during the onset of the French Revolution, but the struggle at its center is just as minimally presented, buried within all this external hubbub. The film's locus, and the microcosm for its more visible conflicts, is the relationship between Marie-Antoinette and her reader, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux). Intelligent but naïve, Sidonie remains doggedly faithful to her decadent layabout queen, even as the young servant spends her nights in a bleak stone cell, her only possession an elegant clock that she's been allowed to borrow from the palace.
The clock is both a symbol and a narrative lynchpin, reminding us not only of Sidonie's subjugated fascination with the luxury of her masters, but the absolute power the royals hold over their subjects; this gifted object is the only reliable way of telling time, and only its owner gets to dictate what time it is. The clock disappears about halfway through the movie, a theft that signals the mounting breakdown of the social order, as angry peasants seize the Bastille. The rest of Farewell, My Queen details the ensuing chaos at Versailles, as people choose sides, form alliances and plan escapes—a process that digs into the formation of new power systems as the monarchy collapses.
Jacquot illuminates these divides by bisecting the film into a series of divisions, foremost among them the sharp separation of night and day, with frantic, torch-lit scenes that seem like nightmares: the Queen frantically packs up all of her jewelry, elderly nobles cower in a crowded hallway, a gentle old clerk descends into a drunken stupor. By morning, these unpleasant situations have corrected or reversed themselves or apparently never happened, and the palace settles into a false sense of calm, its decorum and rules restored, a disparity that adds to the movie's dreamlike quality.
A lurking camera makes things even more interesting by treating these women, with their elaborate costumes and revealing bustiers, as fetish objects, playing up the dominance of the male eye in a story that's defined by its heavily slanted relationships. The cast is largely female, but there's the prevailing sense of the Revolution as a story that's largely been told by men, and is done so here again, with a camera that makes a show of scanning cleavage, settling licentiously upon exposed flesh, seizing on hints of lesbian intrigue which might otherwise be conveyed as evidence of friendship.
The air of elegant sleaze and underhanded conflict at times recalls Fassbinder, and parallels Sidonie's discovery of the palace's sordid state of incestuous decadence. It also helps in the construction of a nested puzzle about power and control, with the camera leering at bare flesh and gaudy surfaces, the irate public lusting over the monarchy's power, and the gradually ascendant Sidonie simply trying to keep afloat, preserving her dignity while eventually carving out a small space for herself. She begins the film as a servant, and in many ways ends it as one, but the shifting state of the world leaves her as the victor.