What better way to start my new blog than to talk about Canal+ new series spectacle, Versailles? And as I do this I will discuss certain aspects that are within my realms of experience – mainly, the writing.
So let’s get the major issue aside right now – the history. Yes, it is a show about historical figures – Louis XIV and his mistresses, his brother Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, and their many loves and conflicts, all set within what is, in my opinion, the greatest palace in the world. Versailles. It is a time period I know well, and hold dear to my heart. (I am by no means a historian, rather a rabid lover of history, le Grand Siècle, in particular, and have done a lot of reading and research on it, both for the pure love and also for my writing-in-progress).
Let’s get this clear – this series isn’t a documentary. It was never touted as ‘an historical account’. It’s fiction. David Wolstencroft, one of the show’s writers, has publicly said he was interested in the iceberg below the surface, the stories that could have happened behind the official accounts. Sure, there are story lines I thought were a stretch, given what I know. The timeframe was condensed, a few events merged into one. Some events displaced or overlooked all together. Characters that I knew would not act or talk a certain way in real life. But in this day and age of waning attention spans, of audiences wanting more and expecting more, you have to write something that not only attracts viewers but has to be approved by those financing your project. And of course, extend beyond the first season.
So, putting that aside…. Versailles is a glorious, sumptuous marvel. Filmed at the Chateau de Versailles and Vaux le Vicomte, the visual impact is amazing and we get the full scope of how magnificent the palace was (yes, I have actually been to Versailles, and yes, it is stunning). How I wish I saw this on the big screen!
The other drawcard for me is the characters. While I expected the usual historical players, I was pleasantly surprised by the fictional ones, too. I love character, seeing what makes people tick, what motivates them. And I was not disappointed. Each character, either major or minor, brings something to the show. And I think this is the key to any historical fiction – approach it as a story and not as a text book lesson.
So now let’s start with my thoughts on the series itself, episode by episode. *WARNING – what follows is rife with spoilers so if you don’t want to know, go off and watch the episode. It’s okay. I’ll wait.
This is the first of two eps written by Jalil Lespert, and we open in the year 1667 with Louis XIV (George Blagden) dreaming of his mothers death last year, his distraught brother Philippe at her bedside (protocol did not allow the King to be present). Straight away this creates empathy – something powerful and emotional that resonates. We also see the start of his obsession with building a magnificent palace, a place where he will reign and command his nobles, a place that will not just be a building, but a community and home. We also see his vulnerability and his burning desire to become a great and powerful king, and discover there is a plot afoot to assassinate him. And so he calls for his brother, Philippe Duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos)….
And our first introduction to Philippe aka Monsieur and his favourite, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams), is as surprising as it is amusing. Let’s just say it sets the tone for their whole intense, tempestuous relationship 😀
In these first few scenes we see Louis’ vulnerability and the dynamic of his and Philippe’s relationship, which is a delicious yet frustrating power play (and is revealed more in further episodes). Brotherly jealousy, yes, but also complex and deep, a test of trust and faith. Well done, George and Alex!
Louis wants to build Versailles on the existing spot where his father’s hunting lodge stands. Expand and improve, that is his plan. We see this obsession also through the eyes of Philippe, who is opposed to the idea, and his various advisors (Louvois, Colbert) who say he cannot afford the expense. But the King is determined to have his palace.
We are introduced to Bontemps (Stuart Bowman), Louis’ efficient and loyal valet. I love Bontemps, who has much more depth than just a walk-on cut out secondary character. We see Louis through his eyes, and he advises his king on occasion, which makes him an important person in the story.
And we also meet a few fictional characters – ambitious Madame de Clermont (Amira Casar) and her daughter Sophie (Maddison Jaizani), Fabien Marchal (Tygh Runyan), Louis’ Chief of Police, and Louis’ doctor, Masson (Peter Hudson) and daughter Claudine (Lizzie Brocheré), who is also studying medicine, a risky occupation for women at the time.
He is ruthless, dark, extremely smart, troubled and yet with a depth to the darkness. He is not evil, yet he does truly horrible things. But I forgive him because a) he is doing it to protect his king, b) brains, even in someone borderline bad, is sexay, and c) I know there’s something more to his facade and I’m interested in finding out what.
Louis wants to build his palace, Philippe thinks it’s ridiculous. “Do you have my back?” Louis wants to know. “Where am I now?” is the reply (this statement is reiterated throughout the series, and it is obvious Louis needs this verbal reminder of his brother’s loyalty). We see Philippe’s desire to help Louis, willingly giving his loyalty and faith, but Louis always manages to rebuke the offer, and take much more from his younger brother. You see, Philippe has been groomed since birth to be the lesser brother, to not outshine the Sun King. Historically, this is true, as a weak, powerless sibling who is financially dependent would not rise up against the King, unlike Louis XIII and his brother Gaston, which resulted in The Fronde (the rebellion of French nobles that Louis dreams about and fears).
So. Now we have the Chevalier de Lorraine planting lofty ideas in Philippe’s mind… “and what would you do, on that day, with all that power?” And we are also witness to their intriguing dynamic. Lovers, friends, confidantes. But the Chevalier is the dominant one in this relationship – a sassy, sarcastic and charming man with ambitions for Philippe… and naturally, himself.
As an aside, I have to say Lorraine and Monsieur are consistent with the fictional characters as the writers have set them up, however, they are markedly different from the historical figures that I know and have researched for a few years now. After I reconciled myself to that fact, I could better enjoy the show. Consistency in character is important for viewers – they want a good story and be entertained – and I think they will be. If they don’t know the history, they most likely won’t care how the show differs from that.
So back to the show… through various conversations and the eyes of the characters, we are shown how life is really like for members of court (“you’re either looking or being looked at.”) There’s a bit of violence as Marchal interrogates prisoners, showing us he is not adverse to getting what he wants. And Louis and his various love affairs are introduced – Louise De La Valliere, ( Sarah Winter) a mistress who has lost favour. Henriette (Naomie Schmidt), Philippe’s wife, who has loved Louis since she was a little girl. Marie-Thérèse ( Elisa Lasowski), the Queen, who is expecting a baby. And the soon-to-be new mistress, Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster). Louis is a man of large sexual appetite (yes, he was) and demanded excellence in all things. Lots of lovely conflict here, much of which comes from Philippe and Louis: their clashes as each tries to exert dominance, Philippe’s increasing frustration at his lesser role of younger brother, Henriette’s love for Louis and her obvious preference for him, which in turn disappoints and angers Philippe, despite his obvious conviction to not let it show (played with such restrained angst and yet so much rage…. excellent, Monsieur Vlahos!)
Another aside… Henriette (or Minette, as she was affectionately known) as a historical figure is not someone I look on favourably. There are Minette lovers out there because she was charming and witty and delightful to be around, the life of the party. But she also treated Monsieur in the most horrible of ways, flirting with Louis less than a month into their wedding, and quite possibly sleeping with him, too. She most certainly betrayed Monsieur by sleeping with his favourite of the time, the Comte de Guiche (a horrible little man but let’s not go there right now). So let us just say I am not a Minette lover at all. And this was my main struggle with the show, because it portrays Henriette as sweet, charming, a little naive (but she’s in love and is allowed to have heart eyes, oui) and also appears terribly neglected by her husband, who prefers the company of his lover the Chevalier over all else. A man who does not like her in the slightest.
See what I mean by building character? If I don’t even think about the history, I am actually kind of sympathising with Henriette, even though I am a card-carrying, die hard Monsieur/Chevalier fangirl, through and through. And there is the matter of Louis bedding his brother’s wife: “I will have you tell me everything he (Philippe) says and everything he does.” …….Such is Louis’ distrust, even of his brother.
We see some dissatisfaction within the noble ranks and trouble brewing, talk of an uprising. We also get an excellent understanding of how life is truly like for the king and his ‘celestial bodies’ as explained in analogy by Marchal: “You, Sire, are the sun. And around you circulates not just our celestial court, but those who seek to harm you. You have ministers who openly defy you. Nobles who pay no tax yet believe France is theirs, not yours. Then, beyond our borders… the Dutch, Spain, the English and Holy Roman Empire. All who surround you will smile, and they will deal. But they would all see you destroyed, Sire. A strong France scares them, as well it should.” This dissent is Louis’ external conflict, one he will struggle with throughout the first season. This is constant for him and creates suspicion and frustration as he tries to maintain command and power over his ever-increasingly dissatisfied subjects. And in these moments of frustration Louis gains insight and wisdom from Bontemps and his gardener-and-former-soldier, Jacques (Gilly Gilchrist). This is very clearly the Mentor at work (for those of you familiar with Christopher Vogler’s seminal The Hero’s Journey on story writing) and I find this Jacque fascinating, another one with a murky past and different facets. As with all the characters introduced, I found myself wondering who was pro- or anti-Louis – a great way to become emotionally invested in the story!
Louis reveals his plans to build “…a new temple here. A royal tabernacle of the sun. A dwelling place of the divine and of the people” to his courtiers. He so does love commanding centre stage, and his little kingly speeches full of wit and supreme confidence are perfectly written.
Episode 1 also establishes The Ordinary World – a sense of the complicated intrigues of court life – the passing of notes, the gossip rife in corridors, salons…. even church. We also have another clash between Louis and Philippe where it is obvious Philippe is exercising power in his own way – by purchasing new shoes to the tune of 50,000. When Louis questions him, he replies “You haven’t seen the shoes.” 🙂 And so another exchange to remind Philippe of his vow – Louis: “When I asked if you had my back, I meant guard it. Not remove it.” Philippe: “You build your palace, I wear my clothes.”
Some wonderful conflict here, as Philippe yearns to go to war and his frustration is glaringly evident when Louis refuses. I get the feeling this desire is genuinely for the glory of King and country, and not just self-serving. He is eager to show Louis his skills but Louis does not like this idea. At all. Lord, I can almost taste Philippe’s frustration at being denied. (curse you, Louis!)
Philippe: “I have your back but what do I get? Respect? No. Power…? No.” Louis: “I give you money to throw away.” The scene ends with Philippe declaring, “you never were good at sharing.”
Aaaaaand then we come to a scene that resulted in me screaming “Oh, hell noooo!” at my computer screen. Philippe goes to his wife, she mentions his brother, which only angers him more (you can see it so plainly – bravo, Monsieur Vlahos!), she asks what he wants and he says “I think I want a son. Just like my brother.” There is a struggle, Philippe shoves her to the table and…… the scene ends.
Okay, this is SO not what historical Philippe would do. Not at all. He could hardly bear to be touched by a woman, much less force himself on one. But this Philippe? Yes. I can believe that. He is furious and frustrated with his brother and he is claiming his territory (aka his wife) any way he knows how. Totally understandable. Totally believable. *Additional note* … I find it interesting and very telling that he turns her into the table, not facing him. So he does not have to look at her as he does his husbandly duty. This tells me a lot. Guilt? Disgust? Or imagining someone else so he can actually do the deed? Probably a bit from all these columns.
And so we come to the final scene – the birth of the royal baby. A black baby. *dark, foreboding music of ominous intent plays*
There we have it – Episode 1. Great set up for the next episode, which has created lots of questions that need to be answered, and established the characters, their motivations and their conflict. I am already invested in the story. I am intrigued by Louis’ vulnerability combined with his almost obsessive determination to be the best king ever. And Philippe and Lorraine….? YES PLEASE.
Oh, and the song in the opening credits? O. M. G. The most perfect tune if ever there was one (Outro by M83, if you want to chase it down and play it on repeat as I’m currently doing).