Growing up in Germany, actress Diane Kruger learned the same things about Marie Antoinette that most people did -- that she was hated, that the French called her the "Ice Queen," that when told the French peasants couldn't afford the bread they needed to survive, Antoinette quipped, "Let them eat cake."
Then she was handed the script to "Farewell, My Queen," and the star of "Troy" and "Inglourious Basterds" did her homework. The caricature faded away. The real Marie was not the dizzy blonde history and the movies paint her as.
"You read in Stefan Zwieg's biography ['Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman'] that the minute she heard about the Bastille, it dawned on her that this was the end of the life they had known," Kruger said. "She realized this sooner than the king, faster than many of those at court. And she took more seriously her responsibilities as from that point, too late, as it turned out. She had a moment when she 'manned up' and became a real queen."
That's the take Kruger went with for "Farewell, My Queen," which opens Friday. The film observes Marie Antoinette through the eyes of a favorite servant, a woman who worships her and yet sees that the queen favors another.
"I had heard about Gabrielle de Polignac, her closest friend," Kruger said. "I read that there were rumors that they might have been lovers. What isn't a rumor was that Marie got Gabrielle out just in time to save her from the guillotine. She had to worry about her own safety and her family's safety, but all she seemed to care about was saving her friend or her love."
The former Diane Heidkruger, 36, is a model-turned-actress who works more frequently in Europe than in Hollywood, with the occasional "National Treasure" movie winning the attention of audiences here.
Actresses have to be gifted mimics, so she has spent the summer mastering a Kentucky accent in preparation for playing Abraham Lincoln's stepmother in a film for producer Terrence Malick, which she'll shoot this fall. Kruger is fluent in German and French, lives part-time in France, makes French films and was once married to a French actor (Guillaume Canet of "Joyeux Noel"). But the language of the 18th-century French court was more challenging, even, than the daily grind of corsets, wigs and makeup that she endured playing the queen.
"You worry, in something like this, that the costumes will be so imposing to act in," she said. "I've never really done a film with such big costumes. ... I couldn't even lace my own shoes, because of the corsets. Every day, I started with being dependent on other people, just as Marie was, with my most private time invaded, just as hers was. That was very helpful for getting into character each day."
From her research, Kruger decided Marie "was borderline schizophrenic," something that grew into the nature of her scenes -- scattered, mercurial.
"You don't see her that often [in the film]. Each scene stands on its own, and she is never in the same mood that she was in from her previous scene. That is alarming, playing her at this extreme or that one -- she feels betrayed. Now, she's vulnerable. Here, she's aloof. I was worried I would never grasp who she was."
Something must have clicked, because the film, and Kruger have earned rapturous reviews, with the Los Angeles Times praising her way of making Marie Antoinette "quixotic, quicksilver ... a creature of ever-changing whims."
"I didn't want to judge her," Kruger said.
She hopes audiences will do the same.
"People -- historians -- have already done that. This is an attempt at showing an intimate side of the woman. I hope audiences appreciate seeing this moment in history from the other side, for once. This is a new way to look at her, see her as more of a human being and not just another look at this icy queen in an ivory tower, this woman the French hated."