In their opulent new drama series Versailles, Simon Mirren and David Wolstencroft transport the viewer into the legendary court of King Louis XIV of France. The first episode opens on a royal household in disarray as, in a play for power against his rebellious nobles, Louis attempts to relocate his court away from Paris to his rural hunting lodge at Versailles.
At first glance, Versailles seems very much like a standard period drama. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course – just as there’s nothing unpleasant about spending an hour watching velvet and silk slither by as beautiful people nibble their way around the edges of dark-chocolate secrets. But Versailles is trying to be more than that.
Although centrally focused on its two male leads, Louis XIV (George Blagden) and his younger brother Philippe (Alexander Vlahos), the show tells the stories of the women who influenced Louis and by extension the political direction of 17th century France. The show makes an active effort to include the untold stories of women, introducing besides historical figures such as Queen Marie-Thérèse (Elisa Lasowski), Philippe’s wife Henriette (Noémie Schmidt) and Louis’ notorious mistress Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster), a number of fictional female characters including Claudine (Lizzie Brocheré), a doctor’s daughter who dreams both of practicing and modernizing medicine.
Versailles does not shy away from the difficulties that these women face in attempting to gain real agency in a world designed to put them at a disadvantage. That same world compels these characters to, at least officially, define themselves by the men around them: for her own safety, Claudine must attribute her own achievements in the field of medicine to her father. At the same time, the queen’s power at court stems from her husband’s position as king of France, Montespan’s from her increasingly intimate bond with the king, and Henriette’s from a complicated nexus of male relationships including those with her brother King Charles II of England, her husband Philippe, and her lover, King Louis.
The show’s emphasis on women’s constrictions, however, is only the beginning – and the impetus for those same women to cleverly and consistently forge their own triumphs. Louis XIV may be the Sun King, but Versailles makes a point of telling the stories of the brilliant and influential women in orbit on all sides of him.
Ms. had the chance to chat with three of Versailles’ female leads about their roles on the show, the place and power of women in 17th century France, and the concept and importance of strong female characters in the modern world.
There are minor spoilers for Season 1 below.
How do you go about telling stories of women in a historical time and place so defined by men? Versailles in particular seems to center in great part on the relationship between Louis XIV and his brother Philippe – where would you say that women fit into this picture?
Noémie Schmidt: My character certainly fits exactly in the middle of Louis and his brother, and is part of their complicated relationship. Of course she is defined in the show by her relationship to the two men, but around the end, Henriette becomes a major political protagonist at court, which is historical. It was one of the first times a woman was chosen by the king to negotiate a highly important treaty. So it was very important to talk about it in the show, to demonstrate women were not just lovers or wives.
Anna Brewster: I think it is very black and white to think it is a period defined by men. Women were an instrumental part of this time, be it sometimes in the background; they played a key part. This element you will see develop throughout the story we tell of Versailles. Through a lot of historical periods, women’s power comes out in other ways than physical strength. To tell a true story we have to look at emotion and I think this is where we can find a lot of the power of women.
Elisa Lasowski: Versailles tells two stories: that of the relationship between Louis and his brother, the creation of the palace of Versailles and how it affected European politics and the greater world. It also tells the story of an internal war, that of debauchery versus moral order and religion; what Louis XIV’s way of life at court meant in the eyes of the world and how it affected society. Women fit into the latter story. They are part of the portrayal of the moral questioning.
All three of your characters are largely defined by their society in terms of their relationship to the king. Do you feel that they themselves define themselves that way as well? How do you feel that your character balances her relationship to Louis with her own goals? When you were playing the role, did you feel that your character had real affection for Louis, or became involved with him primarily for the political sway it could lend her?
Noémie Schmidt: Of course Henriette deeply loved the king, as a lover but also as a friend. They are attracted physically but also they have grown up together. They share a lot on an emotional level and Henriette is one of the few people that Louis trusts enough to express his feelings. Even though Louis married Henriette to his brother for political and obvious reasons (she is the sister of the king of England), the show expresses clearly that their relationship goes way beyond power and politics.
Anna Brewster: This was a place and time where your role and position in court was extremely important. Being close to the king was the ultimate power and, largely, Louis XIV chose to have strong woman around him. I imagine due to his relationship with his mother, he didn’t see women as weak. With Montespan, she was an extremely driven woman and also gifted in that she could conduct a room with conversation and wit, which ultimately caught the king’s eye. I imagine Montespan was aiming for the king but I think the love she had when she got him perhaps caught her off guard. Getting the king and keeping him was the challenge and she succeeded in this. She allowed Louis for many years to grow as a man, but a young man who could be frivolous and extravagant. This is a lot of the reason why some of the French do not like Montespan, but in actual fact through her being there in the court and allowing Louis to behave and live like this, he in many ways created French haute couture and the stereotype of French opulence we have. I think this is a good example of the power she actually had.
Elisa Lasowski: The queen was Louis XIV’s cousin; she knew from a young age that they would probably marry. She loved him dearly, and was essentially looking for happiness with him. I believe that this was her primary relationship to him. She had to learn to negotiate, and find her way into a court that did not welcome her greatly. Being a royal was natural to her – she was born in the court of Spain. Her political agenda, something that we will see in later seasons, was mainly around establishing religious order.
The show’s costumes are gorgeous, but look really constrictive to wear for long periods of time! Is there any way in which you would say you were defined by that physicality when playing your character?
Noémie Schmidt: The corset obviously makes you stand and sit differently. It gave me more poise and helped feel more royal in a way. But after a day of corset wearing, anyone will tell you it was another way to restrain women physically and mentally. They were basically in a form of imprisonment.
Anna Brewster: By the end of filming season two I’m DYING to use my arms and my hands again, so yes, they are constrictive. However, these physicalities are things that help to put you in character. It would be hard to get into the mindset of these people without the costumes, the locations, etc. You have to live it a bit to believe it. When we started filming we also had a historian on set to give us the general etiquette of the period, besides the costumes, and unfortunately that meant standing up – a lot – which is slightly more difficult when you are filming long days.
Elisa Lasowski: Wearing such heavy dresses and wigs naturally informs the way we hold ourselves as movement is restricted. And it’s something we gradually incorporated into our characters. It’s interesting to experience the way in which people were constricted by what they wore at the time; it’s exhausting too. A good thing we have evolved towards more comfort!
Louis insists to Henriette that he’s her “safe harbor” – an offer of course only available as long as his interest in her lingers. How else do you think the show demonstrates the dangers of a society in which women are compelled to rely on men for protection?
Noémie Schmidt: The thing I like in the show is that everything you see on screen concerning women, you can link it to our modern society. As a woman, you have to struggle more than a man to be independent and of course you are more in danger than men. The question of protection is central. Henriette doesn’t have an alternative, she has to be protected by the king or die. The show emphasizes this dynamic and every woman in the court is confronted by it too. It is so important both to realize that too many women around the world are in the same situation with their husband, brother, father, lover, etc., and to continue to fight for female independence and safety.
Elisa Lasowski: I don’t know if women were entirely compelled to rely on men for protection. Their “safety” also depended on their status and position/rank in society. That example is made clear with the character of Beatrice and her daughter Sophie. They are trying to get their papers together to stay at court, to be recognized as nobles. That, more than gender, was the most important step towards protection. The queen, in that sense, was safe, and the king always respected her Royalty. She was made regent several times when the king was away, so power did somewhat shift.
When Marie-Thérèse has another man’s child, Louis accuses her primarily not of infidelity to him as a man, but as treason against him as a king. Versailles comes back again and again to the idea of the personal vs. the political. Is there any separation in the lives of these female characters between the personal and the political?
Noémie Schmidt: At the court it was difficult for everyone to separate political from personal. That is one the many genius moves of Louis. Making everyone live together was his way of checking on them. He had his own CIA, paparazzi, press, etc. So yes, I would say no one could really have a personal life. You see it pretty clearly in the show. And of course for women it was even worse. That is why I love the character of Beatrice, who is a total rebel in that sense and manages somehow to escape Louis’ supervision.
Elisa Lasowski: Yes, Louis XIV accuses Marie-Thérèse of treason against him as a king, because to him, she was the queen before being his wife, in a sense. He notoriously officialized his mistresses and made Marie-Thérèse’s life as a woman and wife quite miserable, but as queen he respected and trusted in her position. Unlike say a Henry VIII, who had killed many of his wives, Louis XIV remained “faithful” to one. The reason he made Marie-Thérèse regent a few times throughout history when he was away for political reasons was that he saw her as his ally. She was royal blood. The infidelity he accuses her of, therefore, is political. For Marie-Thérèse however, her relationship to the king was both personal and political. She truly loved him as a man, her husband, as well as her king. The infidelity in that sense is probably born out of loneliness more than anything. There is a separation in how they feel about one another and that is where a lot of the drama between the two characters lies. As for there being any general separation between the personal and the political I would say that there was, but it’s complicated. In a sense, Versailles was a big house, in which family, friends, children, colleagues, enemies, were living and working together.
The fact that Philippe was raised as a girl to prevent him from overshadowing his brother seems indicative of a world where effeminacy is associated with weakness. Do your characters make their femininity instead their strength instead? Do you think sexuality really was women’s primary means of getting what they wanted?
Noémie Schmidt: I think the very things they wanted were twisted because of the way they were raised. Again, it is still the same today. We are taught to be girls and boys and the things we want are unfortunately influenced by that. In a freer world with more free minds and education, gender wouldn’t decide for you. Every woman at the court wanted Louis because they grew up thinking he was the most beautiful, gifted and talented man. And also, he was beyond powerful. To be a man without power at that time meant suffering and struggling. Imagine for a woman. Of course sex and seduction was a way to get more power and suffer less. That is what Montespan successfully did with her life. Claudine wants to be a doctor; in that way she distances herself from all other women. But she needs to be under the protection of Louis in order to achieve her goal. You couldn’t free yourself from the king and men in general at Versailles. Especially if you were part of the royal family. Henriette’s strength was to accept it and live her feelings to the fullest, knowing her love for others (she truly loves Philippe, Louis, and Montespan as a friend too) was her only area of freedom.
Anna Brewster: For my character Montespan, sex was a huge part of her relationship with Louis. It was why they bonded and stayed together for so long. This is not exclusive behavior to this period; it still happens today in modern relationships. With everything though, this would grow old very quickly and of course you need to have something to back it up. So where other women came and went, I think Montespan stayed as she offered him something else: wit and charm and intelligence. I think this is where she got what she wanted.
Elisa Lasowski: The fact that Philippe was raised as a girl does not necessarily mean that effeminacy was associated with weakness. He may have been raised in that way to be differentiated. The idea was that the two brothers would not be in direct competition with another. Women – and men – throughout history have often used sexuality as a means to an end. And this would have been true at the time as well. So I don’t think sexuality was necessarily the only currency to use. Some female characters may use their femininity more than others, some used religion, love, morality, power. All sorts. What a lot of women did want however was the king. And that is because he had ultimate power and was equivalent to God. That had enormous attractiveness. So if they wanted him, they may have used their sexuality, yes.
Although some of Versailles’ characters are fictional, you play actual historical figures. Before or during your time on set, did you do any research on the real women you play? Have you learned anything about women’s issues of the period while playing this role?
Noémie Schmidt: I read a great book by Antonia Fraser before the show started and learned a lot about Henriette, Montespan and Marie-Thérèse. I also read a book about Philippe by Philippe Erlanger that is called “Monsieur.” He is a mesmerizing character. Henriette’s relationship with her husband was like the one between a sister and a brother. They would pick on each other all the time and experience jealousy and violence, but they deeply cared for each other. Henriette knew everything about the bonds between Philippe and Louis. She knew how hard it had been for Philippe, and she felt for him as much as she resented him. Her power over the two brothers was very psychological and her major issue in the show is how to deal with her complicated feelings and how to manipulate them at the same time.
Elisa Lasowski: Yes, I did research Marie-Thérèse and Louis’s court. It’s difficult to tell what women’s issues may have been like because researching history is done through a very specific lens: the one the historians have created. What I found most interesting is that the historians’ depictions of the queen were entirely biased and un-feminist in essence. A more recent and contemporary female historian depicted her in a very new light, giving the queen a lot more credit than she had been given in the past. So, it’s all interpretation really, and I made my own. This is just an example of an aspect of a woman’s life at the time, and not an issue as such, but it’s something that we see in the first episode: women were confined to their rooms in the later stages of pregnancy as a way to protect themselves and the child. They gave birth in front of many others so that the child’s legitimacy could be recognized.
Nowadays our stereotypical ideas of “strong female characters” tend to involve women who are skilled at physical combat or women go aggressively head-to-head with men – but obviously, these options weren’t so available for the women of Versailles. In what way, then, would you say that the women you portray do manage to uniquely fit the role of strong female characters?
Noémie Schmidt: To me a strong female character cannot be only defined by the fact that they are “like a man”. This is an awful thing to think. To me a strong female character can be sweet or strong, physical or feeble, masculine or feminine. Henriette is strong as a character because her psychological ascendant on Louis and Philippe is huge and so is her influence. At the end, her influence will even be political, and it will bear consequences on the whole country.
Elisa Lasowski: Yes, as you say, these are the current trends and stereotypes in portraying strong female characters nowadays. Being physical or aggressive, as we know, does not mean that the portrayal of the female character is any less of a male fantasy, or in fact necessarily empowered or strong. It depends. Although progress has been made, in film and TV, which are still male-dominated industries in which women are not always given enough of a voice, the way to create a strong female character (if the character is indeed strong) wherever you can, and whenever the script allows it, is to make the character a whole person, for a start. Making it specific to Marie-Thérèse, her strength lay in her subtlety. Louis was the Sun, and she was the Shadow. She quietly tried in her own way to re-establish moral order in the face of France. She was mocked by the court but entirely aware of everything that was going on. She operated alone and resisted.
In some scenes, like one between Madame de Montespan and Henriette in the bathhouse, a tentative alliance between female characters is proposed, but then rejected. More often what we seem to see is men coming between female characters, as when they compete for the king’s attention, or when the Chevalier plants suspicion between Henriette and her maid to drive them apart for his own ends. Would you say that Louis XIV’s court creates an environment where women are pitted against one another? More generally, can you speak a little about ideas of female solidarity in the show?
Noémie Schmidt: Louis would do that as a strategy with the whole court. He was a master of war. Divide to rule better. Divide women to get them easier. The fact is, Henriette and Montespan are smarter than this and even if they won’t help each other into the royal bed, they were very aware of Louis’ strategy and never gave him the satisfaction of seeing them both fight. They knew how to be stronger together because when you are in a weaker position, you develop many qualities. Solidarity is one of them.
Anna Brewster: In many ways, they are pitted against each other. I don’t think this was an easy time to live, especially as you reached the top of the court. That doesn’t mean that these women hated each other. I think there were many strong relationships that will become clear as you watch the show, but it was a ruthless time where sometimes that can fall by the wayside. Ultimately, we are telling the story of the court of Versailles and in this court for these women we are telling the story of Louis XIV and the women around him, so it’s quite easy to see these woman as rivals.
Elisa Lasowski: Yes, I do agree that the court created an environment in which women were made to be in direct competition with one another (but so were men). Louis XIV placed his mistresses’ chambers strategically in the palace of Versailles; he would sometimes have to walk through one to get to another, whatever he found most convenient. Although this isn’t something that we explore in the first season yet, Marie-Thérèse, on several occasions throughout history, tried to create solidarity in between women. She was looking for allies and friends. When Louise de la Valliere was sent away, she became friends with her, visiting her regularly; they bonded over religious activities. She also tried to befriend Madame de Montespan later on in life. Ultimately she had understood that out of all the woman in the king’s life, her own position was in fact the best one. She was the queen and the king would not get rid of her. She somehow grew to feel sorry for the women the king had.
Versailles premieres on Ovation TV on October 1.
Maeve Barry is an editorial intern at Ms. and a student at Occidental College studying Gender Studies and Critical Theory and Social Justice. She also co-founded a group focused on body positivity for high school girls called Clear Image. Maeve loves writing, surfing and her two dogs Buddy and Maddie.