The Grandeur of Louis XIV on Film

Bill Beik

Emory University (Emeritus)

For many years The Rise of Louis XIV by Roberto Rossellini (1966) has been a staple for use in courses covering seventeenth-century France. It always struck me as a rather tedious effort to capture the style of the Sun King’s regime at Versailles, and the film or VHS copy was very poor quality. More recently the film has been remastered and reissued on DVD as The Taking of Power by Louis XIV  (2009). The new version is completely transformed, with rich colors and large clear subtitles. A possible substitute is the newer film, Vatel, directed by Roland Joffé  (2000). Either film would be useful in the classroom, but in different ways.

In The Taking of Power Rossellini displays a remarkable visual sense of time and place. His scenes take place in an atmosphere of cold, dimly lighted, palaces in rooms filled with magnificent furnishings, in front of barely visible walls covered with priceless tapestries. The king’s assertion of authority is narrated in a straightforward manner, using most of the usual clichés. The pace is slow, perhaps too slow for some students. And the interpretation is traditional. By contrast, Vatel is a major motion picture in the Hollywood manner, with celebrity actors and a concocted love story. It has an equally impressive period décor and paints a much more unflattering portrayal of the king and the court. The story takes place in the château of the Prince of Condé, who is acting as host to Louis XIV and his court. We see the central characters away from Versailles, and the focus is on the way they behave, not on the organization of power. Thus The Taking of Power by Louis XIV offers a didactic, extremely traditional presentation of the politics of ruling, whereas Vatel spins a romantic tale illustrating the arrogance and social irresponsibility of the king’s courtly entourage. Taking of Power (100 minutes) is in French with subtitles. Vatel (103 minutes) comes in an English language version.

Rossellini, the pioneer of Italian post-war neorealism, made The Taking of Power for French television in 1966. He and his collaborators have taken pains to reproduce the historical settings and costumes with stunning accuracy. Especially appealing are the small touches of authenticity:  creaking doors, footsteps resounding on stone floors, servants sleeping on mats in hallways. There are wonderful cinematic moments. The film starts with a prologue that is not to be missed. We are transported to the left bank of the Seine, in a meadow, sitting about where the Musée D’Orsay would be today. Across the river is the Louvre as it would have looked around 1660.  Peasants are discussing the worthlessness of kings and the fact that in England the king was recently executed. They conclude that if the same happened in France they would lose their jobs in the palace. The scene shifts to the Château de Vincennes, where Cardinal Mazarin is in his deathbed and everyone is waiting for the transfer of power. His conversations set up the coming rivalry between Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Superintendant of Finances Nicolas Fouquet. There is also an unforgettable scene showing Mazarin’s learned physicians plying their dubious remedies. This extensive Mazarin section is filled with impressive courtly rituals, but it takes up too much of the movie, possibly annoying viewers who may be are eager to move on.

Other scenes are notable. The curtains to the royal bed are drawn back, revealing Louis and his young bride under the covers, while a crowd of courtiers looks on. She claps her hands, indicating that the royal couple had sex that night. Louis says a prayer in Latin, much of which he mumbles without knowing all the words. A royal hunt, complete with dogs and deer is striking. The royal kitchens are bustling with activity as the king’s dinner is prepared.  When the suckling pig is ready, all the kitchen workers curtsy to the platter, and it is carried through long corridors, announced loudly as “THE KING’S DINNER.” The roast is presented to Louis, who sends it away without taking a bite.

The acting in the movie strikes me as leaden. The actors speak as if they were reading lines right out of a textbook.[1] For me, the amateur actor who plays Louis XIV is especially unconvincing.  He looks ridiculous in his flamboyant outfits and he is not very assertive, whereas the real king would have been decisive and charismatic. After the death of Mazarin, Louis visits the queen mother, Anne of Austria, who denigrates the Cardinal and gives voice to the common belief that Louis will soon tire of running the government. She is part of a conspiracy to make Fouquet first minister. Paying no attention, Louis declares that he will henceforth rule in person. He takes the whole court to Nantes where he has Fouquet arrested. The rest of the film is intended to illustrate Louis’s dynamic plan for France. First he instructs Colbert to modernize the economy, foster manufacturing, and develop the Atlantic trade. Second, he says he will make the court so attractive that the nobles won’t be able to afford to stay away. He meets with his tailor and collaborates in designing novel, expensive fashions that the court will have to emulate. He will make the nobles dependent on him while fostering the bourgeoisie to produce wealth. Third, he collaborates in designing the palace at Versailles, which will house fifteen thousand people and symbolize French cultural influence and military power all over Europe.

It might be helpful to point out that the story presented here is the standard patriotic view of Louis XIV as a visionary who laid the plans for the unification of France and the development of the state.  Most historians now reject the idea that Louis XIV was a conscious state-builder who engineered the repression of the nobility and the centralization of the state.[2] Louis’ restoration of order was done in collaboration with the great aristocrats like Condé (see below) who wielded extensive authority and enjoyed important privileges. The idea that Louis laid out a progressive plan for the economy is misleading in two ways. It was Colbert, not Louis, who pushed for economic development, with the king’s less than enthusiastic support. Royal power was built upon the sale of venal offices and the credit of financiers who lived off of the taxation system, more than through the development of trade and manufacturing. Though it is not mentioned in the film, warfare was central in Louis’s priorities, and its cost affected everything else.

As a more recent picture with a dramatic story, Vatel will probably be more appealing to students. In typical French fashion the story is a built around food. In 1671 Louis XIV decides to pay a formal visit to Chantilly, the estate of the prince of Condé, one of the last semi-independent magnates. Faced with this challenge, Condé has to put on a magnificent show to maintain his standing and retain his influence at court. To pull this off is the task of François Vatel, Condé’s chief steward, who was an actual historical figure. Legend has it that when fresh fish from the coast did not arrive in time for the king’s dinner, Vatel was so mortified that he killed himself. Scriptwriters Jeanne Labrune and Tom Stoppard have taken this shred of history and woven a romantic tale around it.

The result is a very entertaining movie with lavish settings and unbelievably baroque scenes.  Indeed, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction in 2000. The costumes are as lavish as those in Taking of Power, but somehow they seem more real and their wearers look more comfortable in them. The spectacles are so elaborate that it would have been unlikely for anyone in the seventeenth century to go quite this far. But despite some exaggeration, the atmosphere of the grandiose royal court is effectively conveyed. And the various spectacles are well worth watching just to revel in this invented baroque spirit. In the movie, Vatel (the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu) bustles around making a thousand arrangements, planning dinners and entertainments of all sorts. The king arrives with queen mother, queen, mistresses, Colbert and other ministers, the king’s gay brother the duke of Orléans with his effeminate companions (based more on twenty-first century stereotypes than on practices of that day), and a whole crowd of other ladies and gentlemen. Louis’s latest flame is Anne de Montausier (an improbable Uma Thurman). The king looks her over while Madame de Montespan, his official mistress, looks on angrily. In the midst of three glorious days of aristocratic indulgence, Vatel falls in love with Montausier. The king becomes jealous of Vatel’s skills at château management. In a gambling match with the king, Condé wagers the services of Vatel and loses. Vatel has been sold out by his boss. He and Montausier console each other, realizing that they are little more than commodities, or slaves, to their aristocratic masters.  Vatel, who is a sensitive artist with a social conscience, resolves the problem by committing suicide as an act of liberation. There is no alternative in a country that hangs on the king’s every whim. Thus, the story goes, it wasn’t the fresh fish, it was society itself!

This movie does not show Louis XIV governing or seizing power. It is more about the king at play, the Louis of the early enchanted fêtes in the gardens of Versailles and the many love affairs of his early years, and about the personal relations between these essentially ugly people. We do see the envoys of the Dutch Republic arriving in the midst of the festivities to negotiate a way of avoiding the impending Dutch War. They are sent away empty-handed by Louis and a hawkish Colbert. Most important, the film gives a realistic picture of the social inequality and the essential cruelty and selfishness that prevailed in the aristocratic leadership. The festivities may be somewhat over-imagined, but this ugly side of absolute monarchy, which does not come through in Rossellini’s sober, didactic presentation, is brought home effectively. The women and servants are used. Vatel, the commoner, feels for his menial employees, knows their families, and calls them by name. He intervenes to protect a small boy from the clutches of Orléans who is trying to seduce him, and he has to watch helplessly backstage as one of his men is crushed to death in the machinery created for a fancy banquet, without the revelers out front even knowing or caring. The message comes through that these are not nice people and they live in an exploitative world.

Rossellini’s aging classic brings to life the standard picture of Louis XIV’s early achievements and his steps to power. Joffé’s extravaganza is more entertaining, and while it might overdo the grandeur and stretch the facts, it provides an unprecedented look at the social reality behind the glamor.

Roberto Rosselini, Director, Taking of Power of Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) (1966), color, France, ORTF, Criterion Collection, Running Time:  100 min.

Roland Joffé, Director, Vatel (2000), color, France, UK, Belgium, 2000, Légende Entreprises, Gaumont, Canal+, Miramax, Running Time:  103 min.

  1. In fact, one of the scriptwriters was Philippe Erlanger, a well-known historian of the period.  Jean-Marie Patte who plays Louis XIV was unable to memorize his lines and was indeed reading from various boards, lending him, as the commentary puts it, a regally abstracted look.
  2. For a survey of the issue see William Beik,” Louis XIV’s Absolutism as Social Collaboration,” Past and Present 188 (August 2005), 195-224.
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