Versailles: The Dream of a King (BBC version)

Here is a link to this program (available only from the UK.) I just watched it and found it very different from the French original. First the emphasis here is not on the palace itself, but on the character of Louis XIV. Also the dramatization is constantly interrupted by various popular British historians. The result is a string of beautiful snippets from the French version, with talking heads popping in to comment at regular intervals. The sense of continuity that makes the French version such a pleasure to watch is completely lost.

Marie Therese of Spain Queen of France

Marie Therese of Spain Queen of France

As for the scholarly quality of the commentary, it left somewhat to be desired. In particular, Lady Antonia Fraser remarked that Louis XIV’s many affairs incarnated the country’s sense of its own virility, something in which Louis XVI would, by contrast, have failed.

This was – rightly – contradicted some time later by another historian, Lisa Hilton, who noted that the very public and doubly adulterous liaison between the King and Madame de Montespan was considered scandalous by the vast majority of the contemporaries. Indeed one of the reasons why Louis XVI remained extremely popular well into the French Revolution was his faithfulness to Marie-Antoinette. French people always hated royal mistresses, and they appreciated their absence during his reign.

But I disagree with Ms. Hilton on many other points. She says, for instance, that Louis XIV was not interested in his wife because she was not attractive. In fact, Queen Marie-Therese (left) was blonde, fair and plump, with regular features, which conformed to the standards of female beauty of her time. But she was undeniably dull, and the Sun King did not enjoy dull people or things.

Ms. Hilton also asserts that Louis XIV was “on the short side,” which would have explained the fashion of – moderately high – heels for men’s footwear. Again this is not true. Louis XIV was 1.75 meters by modern metric measurements, several inches above the average height for adult men at the time. Physically not a towering figure, but most definitely tall.

Marquise de Maintenon

Marquise de Maintenon

When it comes to Madame de Maintenon (right) the usual cliches are trotted out. Even the language tells of thinly disguised animosity: Louis XIV “fell” under her influence, she had him in her “grip.” She turned the King into a devout man, and thus darkened the atmosphere at Versailles during last years of the reign.

On the contrary, Louis XIV had always been deeply religious, and he saw this second marriage as the opportunity to reconcile at last his ravenous sexual appetites and his conscience. Madame de Maintenon assumed, as the King’s uncrowned wife, an extraordinarily difficult position, and fulfilled its duties for many decades with patience, intelligence and devotion. She can hardly be blamed for the horrendous string of deaths in the royal family that struck Louis XIV at the end of his reign.

The commentary mentions that, at the time of Louis XIV’s agony, she left discreetly for “a convent.” Sure, it was a convent, but not just any convent: it was the beloved school she had founded, the Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr, probably the best and most prestigious institution of female education in France under the Ancien Regime. But the film would not even acknowledge that achievement of hers.

So, in a nutshell, this Dream of a King is a mixed bag: watch it for the beautiful costumes and scenery, much of it shot on location at Versailles, and take the commentary with a grain (well, make it a shovelful) of salt.

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