Forget that documentary opening Friday about the couple in Florida with the big, big house. Here’s the real queen of Versailles, the most famous one of all. Diane Kruger plays Marie Antoinette in Benoît Jacquot’s historical drama about the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Bastille — the movie begins on July 14, 1789, and takes place over the next few days — as seen through the eyes of the queen’s designated book reader. That’s right, under the Ancien Regime royals couldn’t even be bothered to read their own books. Since Léa Seydoux plays the servant, these are kitty-cat eyes, narrow and knowing.
Sidonie, Seydoux’s character, gets the morning shift, so she has to be up at 6. The Versailles she moves through is one of glorious finery with pockets of filth. She encounters at least two dead rats, though the living rats she has to deal with, in the form of various courtiers and ladies in waiting, are far more problematic. “Sad to lose a friend,” Sidonie says sympathetically to a lady-in-waiting of another’s dismissal. The older woman looks at her with scorn. “I have never had friends in Versailles.” She says it not as lament (poor friendless me!) but as boast (see how unillusioned I am!). It’s one of the few times Jacquot suggests the dense, vertiginous atmosphere of custom and manners that defined palace life.
Instead, he’s more interested in the look of things than their feel. Jacquot shoots so many scenes in honeyed light that Versailles begins to look as if it must adjoin the ultimate Southern California beach. “Surf’s up — revolution, too!” Lovely as this is to look at (this is one period drama where the lighting is as sumptuously tailored as the costumes), it gets a bit tiresome after a while. Alternately, he shows various servants and aristocrats standing around in dim, narrow corridors, candles in hand, fretting. Revolutions will tend to do that to royal associates. One of the movie’s strengths is how we see the revolution — or, rather the anticipation of it — not from the perspective of royal or radical but courtier and servant.
The cause of Sidonie’s fretting is the queen. Her devotion to her majesty verges on schoolgirl crush. Marie Antoinette has a crush of her own, considerably more passionate and demonstrative than Sidonie’s. Its object is the Duchesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). The real-life women were the subject of scurrilous reports about the perhaps-romantic nature of their friendship. Historians dismiss the rumors, but Jacquot has it both ways. Showing nothing overt, he nonetheless films the two of them together so swoonily you almost expect them to start humming “La vie en rose.”
Jacquot would do nothing so anachronistic, of course. Yet his frequent reliance on a jittery hand-held camera can sometimes make it feel as though we’re watching “The Real Housewives of le Petit Trianon.” For some viewers, actually, that might be an attraction. Also such a visual approach is one way to freshen up a much-filmed setting and some often-described characters. Another is to take the idea of the double (in this case, Sidonie and the duchess) and view it in such a familiar yet unexpected context. The guillotine’s blade is, as yet, nowhere to be heard. But you can feel Jacquot’s pleasure is slicing and dicing this material in novel ways.