Meeting French director Benoît Jacquot is like inhaling a breath of fresh air. It helps that the 65-year-old, who is best known for women-centric films (most prominently 1990's La Désenchantée starring Judith Godrèche, and 1995's A Single Girl, starring Virginie Ledoyen) possesses a lively and sometimes naughty sense of humour. Clearly at the height of his powers, his latest film, Farewell, My Queen, opened the 2012 Berlin Film Festival to strong reviews and it went down well with audiences as well.
I’ve hardly known any women, even beautiful women, who find their bodies beautiful.
Set in 1789 in the final days before the Revolution changed the face of France forever, the film takes a modern look at Marie Antoinette's predicament where she does far more than eat cake. Based on a fictional novel by Chantal Thomas, it's sexy and savvy and boasts fine performances from the female leads, which fit in perfectly amongst the regal splendour at the Palace of Versailles, where the film was mostly shot.
We view the Queen's loneliness with her sexually indifferent husband, King Louis VXI, through the eyes of her reader Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) who is captivated by the Court and it seems would do anything to be part of it. We may never know whether the rumoured lesbian romance between Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) and the Duchesse de Polignac (Ledoyen) that Jacquot adds to the story is true or not, but it certainly adds to the experience of watching the film. Jacquot believes the tryst might have been possible, given women's strong relationships with each other in that period. He speaks minimal English and our interview was in French.
How did you approach the style of the film? It's very realistic and there are a lot of close ups.
The principal was to look at the reality of the situation and to follow the events from the eyes of the protagonist, of the young reader. Therefore what we see on screen is what she sees and the camera follows her all the time. So whenever she stands still, the camera is still and when she runs the camera runs after her. The camera is like another character and allows the viewer to become a kind of protagonist in the story.
Can you talk about the casting? You are giving Léa Seydoux the biggest role of her career, with one critic writing she has a brooding, modern face on screen. Did you cast Diane Kruger because she is German and fits perfectly with the background of Marie Antoinette?
I found it interesting to have these two contradictory and contrasting characters be played by two very different actresses because I wanted to exploit their differences. Léa has a youthful spirit, which is younger than her actual age. She's still like a child and is instinctive whereas Diane works with a strong method of the role she plays. She is more cerebral. I thought it was very important to have them face each other and to see how they reacted to one another in order to be able to build this relationship between them.
Diane is also physically suited to the role and she's the same age as the Queen when the events occurred. She is from Germany, she speaks French with a German accent, she is blonde and she has some physical traits that help generate a sense of urgency. This is a very important role in her career. Léa is somehow the portrait of a beautiful young French actress but they are both excellent actresses in their own very different ways. The camera loves them really.
Was it a conscious decision to avoid showing any class conflict between the two women?
I just want to show how it's at the base of the relationships, how the people in the court are able to live thanks to the aristocrats. There are the same contradictions and ambiguities that are present in any master-servant relationship. Of course when the masters are no longer in power the servants react in different ways. Some flee and some sink with the ships that are sinking.
Sidonie awakes and falls asleep many times in the movie, which ultimately has a kind of dreamy quality. Can you talk about this?
One of the things I liked about the novel is the time limit, that the change in the life of a country was concentrated into a few days. This was very interesting from a dramatic point of view as was the limit of the space, the fact that everything takes place in the boundaries of the Palace of Versailles. It was very close. The waking and dreaming and sleeping is a device that I thought was very important to use for Sidonie, as we all tend to alternate daydreaming and sleep when we are confronted with a situation that's hard to face.
We hear about the Queen's horrible nightmare before we meet her. It was as if she had a premonition that something bad was going to happen.
Was that in the novel?
You are famous for your work with women. Would you reject the title that you are a woman's director, and do you feel that you fall in love with the actresses that you direct?
No, for me it's okay. It's true.
Virginie and Léa appear nude in the film but not Diane. Is there a reason for that?
Because she is the Queen. The Queen is not nude.
Léa says she was nervous to do the nudity.
I've hardly known any women, even beautiful women, who find their bodies beautiful. Virginie's okay now but 10 years ago… [waves his hand in that very French way].
Were Marie Antoinette and the Duchesse de Polignac lovers?
It's very difficult to know. I think they were lovers, but I don't know if they slept together. I think they did.
How much do you think we need a revolution in our modern society?
We always need revolution at a personal level and also at a universal level.
Do you think one is coming?
Not the kind of revolution we know, but some kind of revolution is coming I think. You can see it. I hope it comes. I'm waiting for it.
Farewell, My Queen screens at the Alliance Francaise Film Festival throughout March, before an Australian theatrical release through Transmission Films on June 6.