July 14 (Bloomberg) -- As the French Revolution approached, pamphleteers accused Marie-Antoinette of a scandalous liaison with one of her noblewomen, Mme. de Polignac. The slurs seem to have been unfounded, but they did the queen immense harm.
“Farewell, My Queen,” a historical drama directed by Benoit Jacquot (from a novel by Chantal Thomas), treats the rumors as fact -- sketchy history, but a near-great film.
It unfolds at Versailles beginning on July 14, 1789. Something has happened in faraway Paris involving the Bastille, but it’s hard for Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux), the alert young lady-in-waiting who reads to the queen, to get precise information.
Sidonie, who’s wary by nature, knows it’s safer to let people think she’s clueless -- which she often is. Her loyalty to the queen is real, though.
Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger) is as shallow and capricious as you’d expect of a woman unaccustomed to hearing the word “no.” But she’s cunning enough to pick up on a devotion that may be useful to her.
Nobody at Versailles is sure whether to flee. (Bruno Coulais’ nervous, intelligent score amplifies the tension.)
When the queen hatches a plot to get her lover, the imperious Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), to safety, using Sidonie as a decoy (as “bait,” the young lady impertinently observes), the movie turns into a thriller.
It’s all splendidly overripe. Marie-Antoinette, of course, is gorgeous; so is Sidonie; so is Mme. de Polignac. Jacquot can’t wait to get the clothes off these luscious women, and the cheesy way he lights their nude scenes is the film’s only obvious flaw.
He shows much more respect toward their gowns -- and Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux’s voluptuous designs deserve it. But what really sets the movie apart is the way it conveys the texture of life before indoor plumbing.
You can practically feel the starch of rich fabrics against unwashed skin, smell the acrid odors under the perfume in the dank palace halls.
Jacquot almost never shows the poor, except for one glimpse at the beginning that’s so horrifying it fully explains why this pampered court is about to meet its doom.
“Farewell, My Queen,” from Cohen Media Group, is playing in New York and L.A. Rating: ***1/2 (Seligman)
In “Red Lights,” Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy play ornery academic psychologists who go around exposing psychics as frauds.
The big fish they would like to land is Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a Huey P. Long type with (apparently) the power to levitate, heal and fell his detractors with heart attacks. That isn’t a very photogenic way to die.
Piper Laurie’s spectacular crucifixion in “Carrie” -- a movie that “Red Lights” often evokes, to its detriment -- evolved because the director, Brian De Palma, knew that the heart attack her character died from in Stephen King’s novel lacked visual drama.
Rodrigo Cortes (“Buried”) wrote the draggy script and directed. There’s one fight in a restroom so violent that a man’s head is used to crack off the side of a sink. (It does nothing to advance the plot, since the brawlers just walk away, as immune to lasting harm as Wile E. Coyote.)
I’ve never yet seen a movie that took the side of the skeptics. But “Red Lights” approaches its subject with a solemnity that would be pushing it for a high mass.
When the researchers return to a room they’ve just left to find all their papers scattered, I was less than awed. If you really want to make an argument for the existence of God in a movie about people who can pop light bulbs and bend spoons, you need better special effects.
“Red Lights,” from Millennium Entertainment, is playing in New York and L.A. Rating: * (Seligman)
Nancy Savoca’s “Union Square” opens with Mira Sorvino, in her “Mighty Aphrodite” trollop mode, tossing the kind of public hissy fit New Yorkers know to walk past quickly.
This micro-budget indie about sisterly bonds makes a very small case for slowing down.
Sobbing and screaming obscenities into a cell phone, Sorvino’s tacky, dressed-too-young Lucy pleads with her married businessman lover to ditch work for a quick hook-up. She has, after all, come all the way from the Bronx.
In “Union Square,” that’s not just an outer borough, it’s the outer limits. Rejected and dejected, Lucy invades the hip loft life of her estranged sister Jenny (Tammy Blanchard), plopping onto a tastefully modern couch like a stain.
As gentrified as Union Square itself, Jenny shares the loft with her handsome fiance Bill (Mike Doyle). He knows nothing of her rough-and-tumble Bronx upbringing -- he thinks she’s from Maine -- and together they run an organic food business, drink organic vodka and shop at the farmers’ market.
“You’re trying to pass,” Lucy yells during one of the caricature clashes.
Savoca (“Household Saints”), directing from a script cowritten with Mary Tobler, peels the facades effectively, if unsurprisingly. Lucy, who stayed in the Bronx to care for the sisters’ ill mother (Patti LuPone, in a brief but movie-stealing flashback), has more heart than her gaudy “Real Housewives” appearance would suggest, and Jenny can’t keep the emotional walls up forever.
But even at 80 minutes, “Union Square” feels stretched, bickering its way through one revelation after another before arriving, like a train on schedule, at sentimentality.
“Union Square,” from DADA Films, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *1/2 (Evans)
(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are their own.)
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Mediocre (No stars) Avoid
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham’s interview with Peter Watson and Lance Esplund on art.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at email@example.com.