BERLIN (Reuters) - “Farewell My Queen,” a sumptuous costume drama about the beginnings of the French Revolution, opened the Berlin film festival on Thursday and had audiences drawing parallels with the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
The story, based on a novel by Chantal Thomas, is told through the eyes of royal servant Sidonie, played by Lea Seydoux, who becomes a close confidante to Diane Kruger’s Marie Antoinette.
Though favored by the capricious queen, she cannot compete with Antoinette’s passionate infatuation with courtier Gabrielle de Polignac, who is as aloof as she is beautiful.
The all-female love triangle plays out in the confines of Versailles, where Antoinette lives in splendid isolation, initially preoccupied with dresses, jewels and palace intrigue.
A world away from the gilded halls and polished marble fireplaces, the drab servants’ quarters are a hotbed of gossip about what is happening outside, and it quickly becomes clear that the royal court’s days are numbered.
Antoinette sees her name at the top of a list of aristocrats the people want beheaded, and, resigned to her fate, puts all her efforts into saving de Polignac, even if it means sacrificing the faithful Sidonie.
“Any revolution, particularly this one is (against) an abuse of power and an abuse of money and that is still going on these days,” Kruger said after the movie was screened to the press.
Its official world premiere comes later at a red carpet gala ceremony which opens the 10-day Berlin festival.
“All of history ... is resonant today, because we seem as people to be making the same mistakes,” she told reporters, adding that despite the parallels, Farewell My Queen was not intended as a film about contemporary politics.
Director Benoit Jacquot also saw parallels between his movie and the downfall of once seemingly untouchable regimes.
“That in a sense is the very subject of the film,” he said. “It all revolves around the end of a reign, and personally I find that end of a reign something positive and fascinating.”
The film, shot in digital at Versailles and chateaux near Paris that doubled for the palace, is one of 18 in the main competition in Berlin.
Easy on the eye, and adding the “frisson” of a possibly lesbian Antoinette, the muted response at the end of the press screening suggested critics would be divided on its merits.
Walks down the red carpet may be brisk if snow and freezing temperatures in Berlin persist, but festival director Dieter Kosslick will be happy as long as the A-listers turn up and the festival generates the right kind of buzz.
Also important will be the health of the film market that has grown up around the festival, attracting movie executives from the world over looking to buy and sell titles.
Critics said the annual movie marathon was looking to add cutting edge to its selection this year by featuring several unproven directors in the main line-up.
It will also seek to build on the success of 2011, when Iranian divorce drama “A Separation” won the Golden Bear for best movie and went on to scoop a Golden Globe and two Oscar nominations.
The jury at this year’s festival, led by British director Mike Leigh, will be looking to discover another hidden gem of world cinema, this time perhaps from Africa. “Tey,” “War Witch” and “Tabu” are all competition entries set there.
As ever this year, hard-hitting movies tackling difficult themes will steal much of the limelight.
“Coming Home” is about a girl who is locked up for eight years and was inspired by the real-life case of kidnapped Austrian schoolgirl Natascha Kampusch.
And “White Deer Plain,” at over three hours long, recounts violent social upheaval in China throughout the 20th century.
On the lighter side, the hottest ticket in town is to “Iron Sky,” a story set in the near future when Nazis who escaped to the moon in 1945 launch a “meteor Blitzkrieg” on the Earth.
To survive, Berlin needs not only good films but also big stars to satisfy thousands of journalists who attend every year.
Among the Hollywood heavyweights expected in 2012 is Meryl Streep, who will receive an honorary Golden Bear on February 14 when her latest movie “The Iron Lady” will be screened.
Angelina Jolie is due in Berlin with Bosnian war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” while the cast of star-filled productions like “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Haywire” should add to the celebrity count.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Paul Casciato