Of all the dramas I’ve seen thus far, Versailles was a refreshing, if at first startling, take on Louis XIV’s reign. I’ve seen a documentary on him: the Sun King who built the magnificent palace of Versailles and in whose presence France rose to the decadence and debauchery that followed all the way to Louis XVI’s reign. I had no idea of his brother Philippe though, and he was a surprisingly fresh character – even in the pages of history.
What about the drama itself? If I had to give it a rating out of 5, I would give it a 3. It has a lot of potential, but in my opinion it failed to live up to it. Overly done promiscuousness aside, I felt there was a lack of character development and the plot was painfully slow to unfold. Moreover, the plot lacked real substance. It wasn’t a “page-turning” series, so to speak. I was more curious to see whether Philippe got his wish of waging war than in whether the palace of Versailles was ever finished.
I would have liked to see the relationship between the two brothers more closely. What does Philippe really think of his brother and does Louis hold his younger sibling in any regard? History says Philippe was the more intelligent of the two, but the drama only shows him as a jealous, angry, misunderstood man – we’re trying to portray a man in his thirties – not teens!
However, I think the number one character the drama mispotrayed was Henrietta, Philippe’s wife. Far from the docile, pious woman in the drama, she had in real life flirted openly with Louis and her first child was by him. It was her behavior – or lack thereof- that caused the rift between Philippe and herself, which was severed only after her death. Philippe did not mourn her and she died far away from Louis.
What did the drama get right? Philippe’s blatant homosexuality for one. It wasn’t discouraged in the Court mainly because it made sure that Philippe posed no threat to his older brother. He flaunted male lovers openly, even after marriage, and he did indeed have a habit of dressing as a woman to balls (one scene in the drama).
I don’t know too much about his relationship with Chevalier, one of his many male lovers and possibly his closest, so I’m not sure what to make of Chevalier’s character in the drama. Compared to Philippe, I found him severely lacking. He wasn’t arrested because of his part in the coup, as the drama shows. He was in fact sent away after Henrietta begged Louis to get rid of him while Philippe was away at war. It was only after Philippe’s return and his outrage that Louis allowed Chevalier to return from Rome. It was no wonder Philippe despised Henrietta.
The other thing the drama loosely got right was how restrictive Philippe’s life was. He was forbidden from outdoing his brother in anyway, which surely explained his bitterness. In history, he was denied any extra allowance apart from what he earned from his estates so that he was bound to the Crown at all times without financial independence.
After Henrietta’s death, it was Louis who forced a second marriage upon him to a woman both men found unattractive. That woman however, Elisabeth Charlotte, bore Philippe the son he wanted and without complaint put up with his many male lovers. In other words, she was a good mother- unlike Henrietta who wanted to kill herself after the birth of her daughter because it was not a son.
But I digress. As you can tell, I’m more infatuated with the underdog Philippe than Louis, but then Alexander Vlahos did a marvelous job bringing his character to life. I just hope that the second season is able to explore his character more fully and bring to life the tensions at the Court instead of focusing on senseless scandals.
If you’re interested in exploring the comparisons of the real Versailles with the drama, watch the BBC documentary: ‘The Real Versailles’ (2016). For now, it can be found on YouTube.