Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Versailles, Season 1 (2015)

Alexander Vlahos as Philippe d'Orléans (Monsieur) and George Blagden as Louis XIV
For those who enjoy historical dramas, Netflix has several television series of varying quality. One  series which offers exquisitely crafted costumes and magnificent authentic sets is Versailles, depicting the seventeenth-century court of the Sun-King, Louis XIV. Filmed in English rather than French, to the disappointment of many, the program focuses on Louis XIV's plan to strengthen and safeguard his throne, his kingdom and his family by neutralizing his nobility. He accomplishes his goal through the establishment of the most glamorous court in the world at a palace which he crafts to be like no other. Originally a hunting lodge, Versailles grows and expands around Louis and his family, and the nobles, for whom it is intended to be a golden cage to keep them from rebellion. The drama mixes fact with fiction yet succeeds in capturing the overall grand dream of the young monarch, brought slowly to fruition by bursts of inspiration which to this day set Louis XIV apart from other monarchs. Among great kings, he shines as one of the greatest; Versailles teaches us why.

Unfortunately, the story line is not helped by the sex scenes, which particularly clog up the early episodes. For one thing, there are so many characters that it is difficult to figure out who they all are, especially the fictional ones. The bedroom gymnastics make character identification more challenging. To show Louis having an oddly passionless physical affair with his sister-in-law, Henriette of England, destroyed the sense of what their actual relationship might have been. It is unlikely that Louis would have slept with Henriette because as her brother-in-law intercourse with her would have been considered incestuous. In spite of the probable platonic nature of their relationship, it was a volatile one, nevertheless. It was good how the filmmakers showed how both brothers, Louis and Philippe, caused Henriette to suffer and that being caught between them led to her destruction. Her death scene is one of the most beautiful and heartrending moments, as Louis tries to bring the garden into her room, and with her last sigh she claims that she hears the flowers singing.

Another compelling aspect of the series is the depiction of Louis' younger brother, Philippe d'Orléans. Philippe is usually portrayed in films as a stereotypical mincing and prissy homosexual. But in Versailles his character is fleshed out; he is no longer a caricature but a genuinely complex human being. The show points out how Philippe was encouraged to be effeminate by his mother so that he would never be a threat to Louis. Philippe struggles with the knowledge that his own family sought to emasculate him; his dreams of military glory are thwarted. He is repulsed by his decadent lifestyle while being inextricably drawn to it, a lifestyle which includes his lover the Chevalier de Lorraine. This naturally causes tension in his relationship with his wife Henriette. In real life, Henriette spent a great deal of her life being pregnant with Philippe's children, all of whom died except for two little girls. Philippe's bond with his brother Louis is portrayed as being one of the most important in both of their lives, although they fight and disagree over any number of issues. Where Louis always sees the big picture, the grand spectacle of his kingdom and his people, Philippe sees individuals, and the personal cost of events on certain souls. Louis listens to Philippe, who can speak to him with frankness as no one else can; the brothers are often shown walking through the palace engaged in debate, going from room to room, talking as if they are alone in their boyhood nursery.

Louis' pious Spanish queen, Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche, is represented as a devoted wife whose strong quiet love surrounds her husband even when he is distracting himself with other women. She accompanies him to the monastery where his former mistress, Louise de La Vallière, takes the veil. When Henriette is dying, Marie-Thérèse prays the rosary at the foot of her deathbed. It is entirely overlooked, however, that the Queen was a blonde Habsburg; like her younger siblings Carlos II and Empress Margarita she bordered on being albino as a result of chronic inbreeding. The bizarre episode which has the Queen giving birth to a black child, the result of an extramarital affair with either her dwarf or a visiting African prince is, oddly enough, rooted in history.

 Given the plot twists, and need for thrilling jeopardy, some crucial characters in the series are wholly invented, thereby allowing the showrunners to bump them off without altering history. The fictional villains comprise the conspiratorial Duke of Cassel; the Protestant Béatrice de Claremont (and her innocent daughter, Sophie); Mike, the masked assassin who colludes with Louis de Rohan; and the back-stabbing Montcourt who slaughters the (also fictional) Parthenay family on the roads near Versailles.

Louis’ fictional allies include the psychopathically effective head of security, Fabien Marchal, who is alarmingly fond of hammers and eye-gouging; his one-armed gardener, Jacques – a sort of a horticultural Obi Wan Kenobi, often dispensing wisdom in plant metaphors – and, of course, the King’s overworked medical advisors, Dr. Masson and his talented daughter Claudine. In reality, no woman every practiced medicine at the court – Louis’ real doctor at this time was called Antoine Vallot.

However, the drama is also populated by many real people from Louis’ court. His mother (Queen Anne, seen dying in a flashback); Spanish wife (Queen Marie-Thérèse); brother (Philippe, Duke of Orléans); English sister-in-law (Henriette-Anne, or ‘Minette’); outgoing mistress (Louise de La Vallière); incoming mistress (Athénaïs de Montespan); loyal valet (Bontemps); son (the kidnapped Dauphin); chief advisors (Colbert & Louvois – though Louvois was much younger in reality); and – most thrillingly – the treacherous old friend (Louis de Rohan, a former childhood pal who really did join a northern plot to kidnap the Dauphin and murder the King).

We might also make special mention of Prince Annabar (Aniaba of Issigny) who turns up in the historical sources, but is a bit of a conundrum. There are some doubts as to whether he was a genuine African prince, but we know Louis treated him as the real deal and eventually supported his claim to the throne in Senegal. However, this wasn’t until 1700, by which time Aniaba had been in France for several years. In the episode we are told he arrives for a trade deal and leaves almost immediately.

This also brings us onto the black baby, born in front of a shocked crowd in episode one. Various gossipy chroniclers recounted this tale, but all of their scurrilous stories date to several decades after the event. Crucially, none of them implicated Prince Aniaba by name: that is a modern writerly invention. So, where does the 'black baby' story come from?

Queen Marie-Thérèse’s ‘dark’ baby was, in all likelihood, born premature with her skin a violent purple hue – she died soon after, perhaps of oxygen deprivation during delivery. In the drama we then see the Queen’s scandalous child being given to the nunnery, and the death is faked. This is a conflation of a separate story. As far as we can tell, a real black baby was indeed taken from the palace to a convent, and grew up to become the infamous Black Nun of Moret. Her portrait was painted by the King’s artist, and, as an adult, she was apparently visited by the King and his court, suggesting she knew who her father was! But the implication here was that the Black Nun was Louis’ lovechild, not Marie-Thérèse’s.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Louis had affairs with perhaps as many as 20 women in his life, and was likely responsible for as many pregnancies. Tragically, miscarriages and infant death was horribly common for Louis’ lovers. The Queen fell pregnant six times, yet only the dauphin survived to adulthood. Louise de La Vallière bore Louis five children, but the first three never reached their third birthdays. The King’s brother, Philippe, certainly preferred sex with men, but he did his marital duty often enough to see Henriette-Anne’s body ravaged by eight pregnancies in nine years – with only two daughters outliving their tragic mother. (Read more.)
One anomaly of the series is that, although Versailles was unquestionably a hunting lodge, there are no depictions of the king and his court hunting. There are no hounds, or stags, either, for that matter. No one is shown killing an animal or a bird, although plenty of people die in various macabre ways. It would have better caught the atmosphere of the place if more animals were shown, particularly dogs, who livened as well as dirtied the royal residences.

As far as religion goes, all the characters are unquestionably Catholic, with the exception of one or two secret and murderous Huguenots. It was funny how the courtiers are shown lined up to receive Holy Communion at Mass, and receive the hosts standing. In reality, few people received Communion in those days and when they did so they knelt at the altar rail. It was strange that the otherwise meticulous research did not extend to liturgical practices.

Elisa Lasowski as the Queen, Marie-Thérèse d'Autriche
Noémie Schmidt as Henriette-Anne d'Angleterre (Madame)
Louis XIV and Henriette

The Royal Family: Philippe, Henriette, the King and the Queen
Sarah Winter as Louise de La Vallière
Anna Brewster as Athénaïs de Montespan


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