TV Review: ‘Versailles’

Sonia Saraiya

The opening credits to “Versailles” are scored by a track off of M83’s “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” a 2011 synth-pop album. “Outro,” the track in question, is a electronic, dreamy song that isn’t quite rock but isn’t quite pop, either. The song presents an ultra-contemporary aesthetic to the viewer, as synthesizers from the ’80s combine with swelling chords that recall church music to create a kind of modern-day hymn.

It’s an interesting choice for “Versailles,” a period drama set in 1667 at the fabled grand palace outside Paris. Louis XIV of France, known as the Sun King, transformed a royal hunting lodge into the seat of power — and along the way reinforced his own dynasty’s power and France’s cultural dominance. For the modern audience, Louis XIV is a fascinating and alien figure. He became king when he was just four years old, and ruled for 72 years serene in the confidence that he was divinely ordained to be the ruler of France. A deeply religious man who was both a war hawk and a womanizer, he operated under a set of personal beliefs that don’t have many analogues in the present day.

This is where the music comes in. “Versailles” — which has already aired in France, the U.K., and Canada — attempts to marry modern sensibilities with historical fact, bringing to life the secret histories of the king, his brother the duke of Orleans, his Spanish queen, and his many, many mistresses. In other words, it’s trying to be a historical document as seen through an Instagram filter — more trendy than accurate.

When the series begins, Louis (George Blagden) is just 28 years old, waiting for his wife Maria-Theresa (Elisa Lasowski) to give birth, and missing his recently deceased mother, Anne (Dominique Blanc), with whom he shared a particularly close relationship. In a dream, Louis sees a vision of what Versailles could be, and upon waking, he decides to make his dream a reality — forcing his wife to give birth at the hunting lodge, instead of returning to Paris, and making the rest of the court camp out there with him.

That is about as much of a plot as “Versailles” has. More than a specific story, “Versailles” feels like 10 episodes of pretty scene-setting in a historic fantasyland. The series does so much necessary introducing and explaining that very little actually happens until a few episodes in. Even then, the action is secondary to the creation of a certain seductive atmosphere — the theme park version of historical storytelling.

The emphasis is less on making history come alive and more on making history feel just like every other soap opera. There’s a fair bit of sex and torture, and a lot of Louis strolling around in leggings and high heels, as was the fashion. But the series lacks a raison d’être; the episodes meander through scenery without building the hour-long blocs into narratives. And with so many Frenchmen with long tresses coming in and out of the frame to talk 17th century military strategy, it’s difficult to keep everyone’s names and faces straight.

What is more interesting is how “Versailles” chooses to interpret the major relationships and rumors that defined the early years of Louis’ reign. The French court was full of gossip, meaning that “Versailles” has plenty of ridiculous stories to choose from. A subplot about Maria-Theresa’s newborn child, born at the end of the first episode, ends up engaging with Bourbon France’s take on race, stitching together the Queen’s “pet” dwarf and a visiting African prince with the story of Louise Marie-Thérèse, the black nun of Moret. It’s an illustration of an oft-overlooked element of European history — which is that the world was racially diverse, even in 1667 — one that finds ways to intertwine fantasy, rumor, and fact into a portrait of the neglected and much-cheated-on Spanish Queen.

And the primary relationship of the series is Louis’ close relationship with his brother Philippe (Alexander Vlahos), a functionally bisexual but preferentially gay man whose “effeminacy” was encouraged, when he was growing up, so that he would not be a threat to his brother the king. As a result, Philippe is both accepted and dismissed, angry and relieved. It would be very easy for Philippe to become a kind of caricatured homosexual villain, but he’s written and played with more nuance. Unfortunately, that nuance comes at the expense of his wife, Henriette (Noémie Schmidt). In the first episode, Philippe forces his wife to have sex with him, mostly to express his anger that Henriette has been carrying on a long affair with his brother. That Philippe is then steadily redeemed, as a character, is more than a little troubling. While the complexity granted him is fascinating, the corresponding flatness accorded the king’s plaything, Henriette, is incredibly frustrating.

It is frequently lovely to behold. The real Versailles is of course gorgeous, and the series renders the palace through expensive sets and substantial on-location filming. But like the plot, the prettiness is a little superficial; this is more the CW’s “Reign” than Starz’s “Outlander.” It’s actually quite funny; the show about the French monarchs first aired in France on Canal+, but is entirely in English; “Versailles”’ showrunners, Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft, are Brits.

Which is to say that for all of its flourishes towards history, “Versailles” is a fantasy — a music video using a certain period of history as a theme. M83’s “Outro” has just a few lines of lyrics, including “I’m the king of my own land … Now and forever, I’m your king.” A pretty sentiment, but there’s not much subtlety there.

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