Kirsty Capes reviews the first episode of Versailles…
Raunchy, decadent and overflowing with beautiful French nobility and their gorgeous hair, BBC Two’s new period drama, based on true events, is the Beeb’s answer to blockbuster period shows like Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Sky Atlantic’s The Borgias.
A collaborative project between British, French and Canadian studios under Canal+, Versailles follows King Louis XIV as he inherits the monarchy after ruling through a regency council since the age of four. In an effort to assert his authority among the rather disgruntled nobility of the French court, Louis decides to take the entire court out of Paris to Versailles, and build a palace there. The ten-part series follows the King, played by George Blagden, as he tries to construct the Palace amid political corruption, assassination attempts, a depleted budget and his myriad love affairs.
Versailles certainly has the appearance and feel of a decadent, opulent and over-saturated French court. The stunning vistas of Versailles alongside the well-decorated court are certainly both glamorous and luxurious. The cast is also very good-looking, most notably Philippe of Orleans (Louis’ brother), played by Alexander Vlahos, who has the appearance of a vampiric Benedict Cumberbatch. Episode one introduces us to Louis’ harem of mistresses, and it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. The episode opens with a dream sequence where Louis dances through the Hall of Mirrors with a beautiful young girl, who then doesn’t materialise for the rest of the episode. Meanwhile, another mistress, Louise de la Valliere (played by Sarah Winter) is seen in one seen performing self-flagellation as Louis looks on. It’s all a bit weird, dark and twisted.
And it only gets worse. There’s a bit of shock at the end of the episode, which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it yet, and Louis’ long-suffering wife Marie-Therese (Elisa Lasowski) appears to keep a dwarf as a pet in her bedroom. This, among other aspects of the show, left me a little incredulous, but after a quick Google I was surprised to find that actually, Versailles, despite all of its sexiness, is on the whole fairly historically accurate. In fact, it was common practice for Spanish royalty (Marie-Therese is a Spanish princess) to keep dwarves as pets. Louis was known throughout France as something of a lothario, and Philippe, who is introduced to us as he performs fellatio on another nobleman, Chevalier (Evan Williams), was widely known to have homosexual relationships as well as dress up in ladies’ clothing at court.
And despite all of this, on the whole Versailles failed to shock me, despite its repeated and best attempts to do so. I suppose when there’s stuff like Game of Thrones on TV with similar themes, it’s hard to trump that kind of sex-gore fusion. I found Louis’ character to be a little slimey and hard to empathise with, while his relationship with his brother Philippe seemed disingenuous. Too many plot threads introduced in too short a time left me confused, having to look up the life of Louise XIV on Wikipedia after watching. The sex was lacklustre and, despite a 27 million euros budget, some appallingly rendered CGI wolves made an unnecessary appearance in episode one.
I’m not writing Versailles off just yet, and I’m hoping that the following episodes will give the audience a little more room to breathe. But for an introduction to Louis XIV’s decadent world, Canal+ have done a slapdash job of it.
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