There are certain historical figures whose life stories are revisited time and time again because, quite simply, they’re fascinating. Filled with the types of twists and turns that make for good drama, they’ve been the subject of numerous TV shows and films.
Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign is one of them. Nelson Mandela’s triumph over adversity is another. The rule of France’s King Louis XIV has also been depicted in a number of movies, many focussing on the legend of the Man in the Iron Mask. Now, TV series Versailles takes a closer look at the monarch and his bold scheme to relocate the court from Paris to the Palace of Versailles.
Yes, there are racy scenes – people in the 17th century did have sex, you know – but the series, now in its second season with a third on the way, offers more than that. Here’s what else you can expect from the trip back to the court of the Sun King.
Elaborate period costumes…
And that’s just the men. Designed by Madeline Fontaine (Amélie, Yves Saint Laurent), the costumes made concessions for modern bodies but otherwise were as close to what members of Louis’ court wore as possible – which called for a lot of material.
“Dresses required around 10 metres of fabrics each, same for the men’s costumes, which were made of three pieces — justaucorps, pourpoints and culottes,” Fontaine told WWD, adding that those sex scenes required undergarments to be present and accounted for (so they could be taken off). “Women were wearing three layers of skirts, coined “la discrète”, “la friponne” in silk and “la secrète”, which was quilted, from the above to the underside.”
George Blagden, who plays Louis, confirmed the attention to detail in an interview with The Guardian, saying, “We were filming outside in summer, it was 27 degrees and I was dripping with sweat. I said to the costume designer, ‘I’m wearing five layers and you can only see two of them. Can’t I take some off?’ She said, ‘No, George. If you do that, the jacket won’t sit right.’ No one was willing to cut any corners.”
Scenes filmed at the actual Palace of Versailles
The production was able to shoot at some of the palace’s best known features, including the Marble Court, the Hall of Mirrors and in the opulent gardens. But a couple of factors prevented the entire series being filmed at its namesake location.
"The problem with Versailles is the gardens are open seven days a week, and the building is only closed on Mondays," producer Claude Chelli told Radio Times. "So we booked Mondays to shoot stuff that is so specific to Versailles.”
Another issue: one of the occupants of Versailles immediately following Louis XIV was Marie Antoinette and she made major changes to the décor of the palace. Instead, the production found other era-appropriate chateaux and palaces to film certain segments. One of these was Vaux-le-Vicomte, which was built by Louis’ minister of finance. So taken was the king with that palace back in the day that he jailed the minister (to be fair, he may have embezzled the funds to build his home), and took his architect and gardener to work on his renovations at Versailles.
Some of history’s most interesting personalities
Obviously there’s Louis, the longest-ruling monarch of a country in European history, having come into power at the age of four and hit the ground running just ahead of his 18th birthday with major reforms and restructures. His decision to shift the royal court from Paris to his father’s old hunting lodge in Versailles was a pivotal power play that paid off, enabling him to consolidate his control over the aristocracy.
Louis’ brother, Prince Philippe (Alexander Vlahos), is also intriguing, not least because he was, in many ways, raised as a girl in an attempt to prevent him competing with the young king – a problem that had arisen between Louis XIII and his brother Gaston, Duke of Orléans. A cross-dressing bisexual in his adult life, Philippe was also a prominent and successful military commander.
Then there’s Louis’ season two mistress Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster), whose sway over the king was considerable, and Philippe’s petty and vindictive lover, Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams), whose exile from France is undone in season two. Both are characters to keep your eye on.
Besides its real-life figures, Versailles also features a number of fictional creations – none more impactful than Louis’ enforcer, Fabien Marchal (Tygh Runyan), who gives new meaning to the phrase “getting the job done”. He may not be based on an actual person, but historian Greg Jenner told The Telegraph, “Obviously there were some shady characters that worked for Louis XIV, because Louis was a fairly paranoid king. I think Fabien is a combination of perhaps two or three senior people who lurked in the shadow.”
Key events in European history
Things might not play out exactly how they did at the time – like any historical drama, a fair bit of time-shifting, conflation and chronological adjustment goes on – but Versailles depicts some of the significant events that shaped Europe in the 17th century and would continue to do so in the future.
As well as Louis’ development into an absolute monarch, with control over every facet of life at Versailles, his relations with foreign powers are also represented. Midway through season two, Louis goes into battle against the Dutch Republic’s William of Orange (George Webster) in the Franco-Dutch War, a conflict that would further solidify France as Europe’s preeminent military power and have implications when William went on to rule England.
Closer to home, the “affair of the poisons” plays out – a series of murders that went on for five years in real life. With all those nobles crammed into Versailles, the restless aristocracy found ways to, er, kill time. “Powders and potions… became very popular at Versailles - so much so that people started to abuse them and people would often lace them with poisons; it was a very easy way to get rid of people that you didn't want or you didn't like, or someone who was climbing the social ladder too quickly above you,” Blagden told Radio Times.
Versailles season 2 airs Thursdays at 9:30pm on SBS. Missed the last episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand: