Farewell My Queen & Fast and Furious 6June 8, 2013
Everyone knows the story of doomed, frivolous Marie Antoinette whose life of pampered luxury was ended by the guillotine. The Queen’s personality was established in filmmakers’ minds by Stefan Zweig’s best-selling biography of 1932, subtitled The Portrait of an Average Woman, and she has never been allowed to deviate too far from that model.
Among earlier portrayals of Marie Antoinette there was Norma Shearer in a Hollywood film of 1938, directed by W.S. Van Dyke II – otherwise known as “One-Take Woody”, with the uncredited assistance of Julien Duvivier. Recently we saw Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s aimless, shapeless Marie Antoinette of 2006.
Coppola’s film almost did for the Court of Versailles what Jaws did for the beach, with Dunst playing Marie Antoinette as a bored Valley Girl. French director, Benoit Jacquot, shows how it should be done, in Farewell My Queen, a costume drama set during the last days of the ancien régime. Although the story is based on a novel of the same name by Chantal Thomas, Jacquot creates a realistic portrait of the carefully structured life of the court crumbling into disarray in the crisis that follows the fall of the Bastille.
Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) has the task of choosing books from the library and reading them to the Queen. Holding herself aloof from the promiscuities of Versailles the youthful Sidonie is completely devoted to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), whose allure she feels as a blend of the maternal and the erotic.
The Queen is aware of Sidonie’s feelings, and treats her in a teasing, affectionate manner. Yet Marie Antoinette herself has fallen in love with the beautiful Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) – an attachment that has scandalised the court. At this point one must stress this is a fictional account. Although the real Gabrielle was such a favourite of the Queen that the two were accused of being lesbian lovers, there is no evidence this was anything more than hearsay.
All this lesbian dalliance between beautiful women might be seen as a male fantasy on behalf on the director, especially a scene in which Sidonie slowly removes the coverlet from a sleeping, naked Gabrielle. I’m not sure this was dramatically necessary, but I can’t pretend to disapprove. (One wonders how many takes were required). Jacquot could argue that nothing is gratuitous because the implied love triangle – which also has echoes of master-slave and mother-daughter – is the fulcrum upon which the story turns.
In the 1938 version the romantic interest was provided by Tyrone Power as the Swedish count, Axel von Fersen, with whom Marie Antoinette is believed to have had an affair. This was more conventional but no less speculative.
Over the course of three days we watch the gradual disintegration of the court as news filters in from Paris of the revolutionary uprising. A document is being passed around listing all those who are condemned to lose their heads under the new order. Some aristocrats disguise themselves as commoners and prepare to flee. Servants begin to rebel against their masters. Pilfering and opportunism arise on all sides. In the midst of this growing chaos, Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois) prepares to travel to the city and confront his antagonists.
Louis scoffs at the idea that the people are not only demanding bread, but power. For him, power is a malediction, “a curse hidden under an ermine cloak.”
While his retainers drift away he maintains his daily ritual of checking a thermometer.
Marie Antoinette’s response is more unhinged. She and her attendants try to pretend that life goes on as normal. She is delighted with a dahlia that Sidonie embroiders while Paris is in turmoil. She fantasises about fleeing to Metz, linking up with her Austrian relations and raising an army. She begins to write a pathetic little speech intended to make the revolutionaries feel compassion for Louis and his family. Above all, she worries about Gabrielle’s safety, while being tortured at the thought of parting from her love objet.
Diane Kruger is a more credible Marie Antoinette than any of the previous cinematic models. She is spoilt, fickle, and shows all the psychological ticks of someone who has lived for years in isolation from the wider world. We are spared that old line about letting the people eat cake – or brioche. This Queen is a manipulator, prepared to exploit the loyalties of a servant such as Sidonie to achieve her own ends. The wheel turns in such a way there is a scene in which Sidonie is stripped and reclothed in a manner that recalls Marie Antoinette’s own treatment when she first arrived at Versailles.
Léa Seydoux is older than the character of Sidonie in the novel, but Jacquot allegedly chose her because he wanted a particular quality of sensuality. What we get is a figure who seems by turns innocent and idealistic, but manages to smoulder her way through the story like a bomb with a long fuse. We’ll soon be seeing Seydoux in a more explicit role, in Blue is the Warmest Colour, which has just won the Palme d’Or in Cannes.
As we watch this tense, tumultous story unfold through Sidonie’s eyes, we see all the petty corruptions and depravities of the Court, and feel her passionate desire to keep faith with the Queen. But as Louis XVI found, in his efforts to mollify the insurgents, it is one thing to act in good faith with those of another social class, but foolish to believe those sentiments will be reciprocated.
Fast and Furious 6 is not the kind of film I’d generally be reviewing, but circumstances have thrown us together. The film I’d intended to discuss has had its release date postponed, and as I’m currently in Olso, I was left to find a movie that opened this week in both Australia and Norway.
This at least gave me an excuse to visit Olso’s great movie palace, The Colosseum, whose main theatre features a wide screen under a towering dome. If the movie had been dubbed into Norwegian it would have been even more enjoyable, as I wouldn’t have understood any of the unbelievably stupid dialogue. Unfortunately the scrupulous Scandinavians prefer to run original versions with subtitles.
No subtitles are required for BOOM! CRASH! KERANG! SPLAT! – which are the sounds one hears for most of this movie. The plot revolves around Vin Diesel and his mates trying to thwart the evil designs of a master criminal, while winning back a girlfriend who has lost her memory and joined the baddies. The plot, however, is of no special interest with Fast and Furious 6.
It’s obvious that director, Justin Lin, is intent on giving the audience exactly what they want, and that’s BOOM! CRASH! KERANG! SPLAT!
Many of the fight scenes and last-second rescues are so ridiculous that viewers laugh involuntarily when they should be holding their breath with suspense. There is not even the faintest attempt to make these scenarios believable, and this may be counted as a kind of virtue. If a director must sin against taste and common sense, he should sin with conviction.
There is one action sequence in which the villain, Shaw (Luke Evans), has the peculiar idea of making his getaway in a tank travelling down a multi-lane highway. The final crescendo, which involves a cargo plane and numerous cars, takes place on a runway that seems to stretch on endlessly, while Lin tries out every possible variation on a theme.
Having not seen any of the five earlier installments of this franchise, I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to sorting out the interpersonal dynamics between characters. However, it appears that Vin, in his role as Dominic Toretto, is a master criminal with a heart of gold, surrounded by like-minded friends of both genders and various ethnicities, who see themselves as one big happy family.
Along comes Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Hobbs, a musclebound police stooge, who looks like he was generated by computer. Without too much persuasion, Hobbs gets Dom and the gang to come help him foil a sinister plot, allowing them scope to do what they do best: destroy vast quantities of souped-up cars.
Dom is supposed to be a sexy, charismatic leader with an unshakeable loyalty to his friends. Vin Diesel conveys this impression by half-lowering his eyelids, pushing out his lips, and muttering something profound or witty in a low growl. Well it may sound profound or witty to a six-year- old, or to anyone capable of reading a book by Dan Brown.
It’s not the action sequences in this film that are the most terrifying bits, it’s those moments when Vin and the gang talk about Who They Are, and What They Do, and how nice it is to be A Family. One thought keeps recurring: “How much did they pay someone to write this stuff?”
If you believe that heroes in Hollywood movies act as role models for impressionable youth, Fast and Furious 6 is an alarming proposition. In this film the criminals are all cuddly, loveable, self-righteous types who like to race around the centre of London and other cities at about 200 kms an hour. Surely this presents both a fantasy and a challenge to the tiny minds and testosterone-fueled egos of those petrol heads who love to burn up suburban streets on Friday and Saturday nights.
Farewell My Queen, France, rated M, 100 mins
Fast and Furious 6, USA, rated M, 130 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 8, 2013