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Farewell, my queen, farewell greed

The French Revolution, triggered by the storming of the Bastille in 1789, was an “event” in Badiou’s sense of a history-changing occurrence made possible by a large number of individuals acting in concert to achieve a certain goal. This event is vividly brought to life – albeit from a distance – in Benoit Jacquot’s wonderfully understated film, Farewell, my Queen, currently touring the country with a fine collection of other recent French films.

The French Institute, the Alliance Francaise and the SA Department of Ats and Culture (among other agencies) should be congratulated on treating South African audiences on such outstanding film art (especially considering the usual fare of Hollywood establishment cinematic kitsch that we are exposed to most of the time). I have so far seen the one referred to above, as well as Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum, and Satrapi and Paronnaud’s Chicken with Plums, all of them superb in their own, distinctive way, but here I want to concentrate on Farewell, my Queen because of its unmistakable relevance for the present time.

In my last post I made use of Deleuze’s concept of “crystals of time” – images or image-clusters in which retrospective time and prospective time (both virtual and actual) are condensed in such a way that it brings past and present, non-actualised possibilities and actuality, together. Farewell, my Queen does this superbly, the more so because it is the fictionalisation (of the out-of-sight, interstitial spaces, one might say) of an actual, epoch-making historical event – the political manifestation of the Enlightenment’s belief in the capacity of reason to liberate people from political and economic tyranny.

As said before, these things are understated in the film – one only gets the odd glimpse of the dire economic circumstances of the so-called “fourth estate” (the proletariat) when the soldiers at the gilt gates to the royal palace at Versailles shoo a group of desperate people congregated there away in the morning. Its power lies in its reconstruction, from the perspective of Sidonie (a young woman whose job it is to read to the queen), of the pampered, cocooned lives of the royalty and members of the nobility at the royal Versailles court, who were hopelessly out of touch with the accumulating signs of a simmering social and political upheaval in the rest of France, particularly in Paris.

The action is set around and after the storming of the Bastille on July 14 1789, when news of this ominous event eventually reaches the court, and is passed along its passages in whispers from noble to noble, and to the workers expected to fawn on them. That everyone realises the revolutionary implications of this occurrence, is clear from questions that the news provokes, such as “What will happen to us?” And “Shouldn’t we flee immediately?” Many of the nobles (and the workers) do, as one gathers from visual snatches of people hastily packing up belongings and getting into their coaches. This process gathers urgency when a pamphlet bearing a list of 286 (if I recall) names reaches the court – names of royals and nobles whose heads have to be removed from their bodies (so it is stated) for the necessary reforms to take place. And Queen Marie-Antoinette’s name tops the list.

Understandably, this news causes the queen to start preparing for a hasty departure to Switzerland, a resolve stymied by King Louis XVI’s laudable (but short-sighted, as it turns out later) decision to meet with “his people” in Paris. Again, the film’s punch is a soft, but forceful one, emanating from the cinematic uncovering of the all-too-human trait of denial, evident in the continuing practice, in the midst of the prognostication of revolution, of coddling the queen by indulging her whims – such as Sidonie being instructed to embroider a dahlia for Her Majesty, and choosing only those texts to read from that would lift the queen’s spirits.

The central intrigue at the court at this time turns out to be the queen’s uncontrollable infatuation with another (beautiful and arrogant) woman, to the consternation of the young Sidonie, who is totally devoted to the queen. To add insult to injury, when Marie-Antoinette decides to stay, she tells her female would-be paramour to flee to Basel disguised as a servant, and instructs Sidonie to impersonate this duchess (expensive, fashionable clothes and all) and travel with her to Switzerland as “insurance”. The fact that the queen regards her as expendable (to save the duchess) is not lost on Sidonie, but she does it anyway, without any diminution of her affection for Marie-Antoinette. The fact that their coach is stopped along the way, before being allowed to continue on its journey – with people moving about, torches in hand, outside the coach – is, again, an understated intimation of the inevitable consequences of decades of political and economic oppression for those who conveniently connived at such oppression.

At the level of the time-image Jacquot’s historically located film unavoidably interacts with the history of the present. Throughout I sat wondering if he deliberately directed the action in such a way as to hint at the similarities between the France of the late 18th century and the world of today, on a global scale. After all, the film was released in 2012, and Jacquot, as Frenchman, would surely have been aware of these parallels. Didn’t Francois Hollande, France’s new president, make it abundantly clear in his pre-election speeches that the world stands, like so many times before in history (albeit on a smaller scale then), before the stark reality of a virtually unbridgeable divide between the economic elites of the globalised world and the (often miserably) poor? Which is why Hollande stated unambiguously that he realised the adversary he was up against was “the world of finance”. And have events in this financial world since his election not borne out the accuracy of his insight? The recent ignominious (but stinking rich) departure of Barclays Bank’s Bob Diamond (who did not last forever) from the scene amid growing evidence that credit-card holders all over the world have unwittingly been “ripped off” by the rate-fixing banks (of which Barclays was but one), confirmed that the world’s elites care as little for the world’s economically deprived today as France’s nobility and royalty did in the 18th century.

Small wonder that one of the most persistent globally occurring protests listed by Hardt and Negri in Multitude (2005) is protests against poverty (alongside protests against lack of representation of ordinary people by their so-called representatives at a local, regional, national and international level, as well as protests against war and violence). In fact, these authors allude to the months immediately prior to the fall of the Bastille, when more than 40 000 “lists of grievances” were submitted by ordinary people to France’s provincial governors, to be placed before the king (to no avail), and point to the parallel between these grievances and the protests that have been accumulating across the globe in recent years (also to no avail).

In his newly published book (Lost in Transformation) veteran economist Sampie Terreblanche exposes the lie of neo-liberal capitalism – with its empty promise of wealth generated at the top, which would supposedly “trickle down” (who wants a trickle, anyway?) to the poor – by pointing out that, on the basis of his research for the book, all indications are that under the ANC in South Africa (and it’s no different elsewhere) the “trickle” has been upwards, into the pockets of the already wealthy, widening the gap between them and the poor. And he makes it clear that a change of economic direction is overdue. This goes for the world in its entirety.

If you can make it, go and see Farewell, my Queen, to experience the premonitions of revolution in 18th century France made tangible through great film art (very different from Hollywood “feel-good” trash), and ask yourself what it reminds you of.