Her name is synonymous with cake and guillotines, and she’s been played by everyone from Norma Shearer to Kirsten Dunst. In Benoît Jacquot’s initially tense, ultimately flaccid period drama – adapted from Chantal Thomas’s historical fiction novel – the fall of much-loathed monarch Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) is retold through the eyes of her handmaiden Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux). It is this beautiful young woman’s job to read to the Queen, a task she delights in and that offers her a voyeur’s perspective into the flighty monarch’s gilded existence in Versailles.
Jacquot likewise turns his audience into Peeping Toms, limiting our views of Her Majesty and her entourage in accordance with where Sidonie happens to be at a given moment. When the Bastille falls, as it must in any Marie movie, the director sticks claustrophobically close to his young heroine as she wanders the palace halls, gleaning piecemeal information about the uprising that will change French history. This lengthy sequence takes a past moment and makes it sensationally, kinetically present (you half expect a supertitle screaming Dateline: Versailles to come smashing onscreen). But once the rote plot takes over – it involves Sidonie’s willing sacrifice to protect the Queen’s pampered mistress (Virginie Ledoyen) – the tension brought on by the film’s you-are-there verisimilitude quickly devolves into soapily overwrought theatrics.