Louis, enfant roi

Brian Sandberg

Northern Illinois University

Louis, enfant roi is the story of Louis XIV’s childhood and his ascent to power during the Fronde civil war of 1648-1652.  From the opening scene, which shows a young Louis distracted from an outdoor astronomy lesson by a mesmerizing sun, the film concentrates on the boy’s struggle to acquire enough courage and confidence to become the Sun King. Louis XIV is remembered today as the quintessential absolutist monarch who was obsessed with his gloire and his military reputation. The film relies on the traditional narrative of Louisquatorzian absolutism as a necessary response to the centrifugal forces of parlementary and princely self-interest. The Fronde (named after the simple slings that boys used to shoot rocks) was an incredibly complicated civil war, with shifting loyalties and oscillating political alignments. The film effectively presents the drama of the Fronde from the child king’s point of view, at the cost of caricature, compression, and simplification.

Louis was celebrated as the dieudonné (God-given) at his birth in 1638, more than two decades after the marriage of his parents, Louis XIII and Anne d’Autriche. The dauphin became the center of attention at the Bourbon court, but Louis XIII’s death five years later left Anne d’Autriche to act as regent for her child king with the assistance of the first minister, Jules Mazarin. The film presents young Louis as a tender child and constructs a coming-of-age story that includes Louis’s initial romantic and sexual encounters.

The plot of Louis, enfant roi begins in January 1649 after the outbreak of the Fronde, as the royal family hurriedly packs and flees from Paris in the middle of the night, heading to join a royalist army under Louis de Bourbon prince de Condé at Saint-Germain, west of the capital. The film contextualizes the Fronde through flashback dream sequences of Louis XIII’s illness and death, but largely omits the Thirty Years’ War and France’s ongoing struggle with Spain. Mazarin’s military and diplomatic policies had focused on achieving victories to negotiate from a position of strength, but his insistence on dictating favorable terms left France isolated and unable to reach peace terms with Spain.[1] The Spanish threat to the kingdom is occasionally mentioned, but without explanation of French war weariness or burdensome taxes. The film starts after the arrests of the parlementaires (judges in the Parlement de Paris) in 1648 that prompted popular protests and barricades in Paris, but it does later show the judges as frondeurs determined to oppose Mazarin and the regency government.

Louis and his younger brother, Philippe de Bourbon duc d’Anjou, struggle to comprehend the ensuing civil war, with its confusing politics and fluctuating alliances. Philippe appears as a rowdy and rambunctious brother whose frequent asides to the viewer add context and some snide humor. Philippe has often been depicted as effeminate, but here he seems self-assured and surly, playing pranks and expressing indignation at his continual subordination to his elder royal brother.[2] Several scenes show the young king and his brother at their lessons, yet the film pays relatively little attention to the abundant early modern literature on princely education. Louis, enfant roi stresses the increasing alienation of the maturing king from his brother, and indeed Philippe would remain an outsider at the royal court the rest of his life.

Against the backdrop of growing chaos, the film depicts the collaboration between Anne d’Autriche and Mazarin in leading the regency government and guiding the young Louis XIV. Mazarin appears as a cunning politician and royal favorite, rather than as a first minister at the head of a sophisticated ministerial government. Anne’s reputation for devotional piety is suggested, but the film implies that she is sleeping with her minister (as many contemporaries believed and some historians have argued) and insinuates that her religious concerns are purely instrumental, subordinated to her concerns with money and power. Together, Anne and Mazarin struggle to weather a series of plots and conspiracies orchestrated by rival princes from different branches of the ruling Bourbon dynasty. In one of the most dramatic scenes, Anne and Mazarin pressure Louis into ordering the arrest of the prince de Condé and his key allies in January 1650.

Traces of the popular Fronde in Paris are seen through food shortages in the city during successive blockades of the capital. The Parisian frondeurs seem agitated and angry, but the parlementaires are relegated to minor roles, manipulated by nobles and the scheming coadjuteur (coadjutor bishop of Paris and the future cardinal de Retz). In one scene, a crowd of Parisians invades the royal palace demanding to meet with Louis XIV, who feigns sleep. Anne plays on the Parisians’ fervent Catholic piety to manipulate them, implying that Anne’s religiosity is artificial and hypocritical. The radical public speaking in Paris that helped generate the popular Fronde is largely absent, however.

The film powerfully conveys the radical propaganda and turbulent political culture that emerged during the civil war, drawing on the printed pamphlets dubbed mazarinades (directed against Mazarin, as well as Anne d’Autriche) that stirred up hatred of the regency government.[3] The prince de Condé’s and the duchesse de Longueville’s repeated dismissive references to the cardinal as “Mazzarini” underscore the anti-Italian sentiments in France. As his position as first minister becomes precarious, Mazarin shows Anne d’Autriche a report of salacious rumors in Paris accusing her of having sex with a young nobleman. Anne defends her reputation by humiliating the nobleman in front of the royal court

Another potent scene displays a satirical play performed for Conti and other princely frondeurs, evoking one of the fêtes frondeuses held by princely and urban elites to rally support. This play depicts Mazarin twirling around with an enormous protruding phallus before sodomizing the queen mother. The scene effectively presents the highly gendered and often lewd polemics of the Fronde, which included a song that condemned “Mazarin the buggerer” and “our whore of a Queen.”[4] The film further sexualizes the scene by portraying members of the court engaged in an orgy, which barely pauses when the young Louis barges in, only to leave in shock. Parisian noblewomen’s salons, where radical political and literary ideas were discussed, are not shown.[5]

The film also effectively represents Louis’s relationship to Mazarin, who acted as his godfather as well as his first minister. Mazarin had a miniature fortress constructed for the young king and his entourage of noble children, and the film uses it to symbolize both Mazarin’s avuncular attitude toward Louis and the minister’s own status at court. The model fortress is transposed from its actual site in the garden of the Palais Royal to a château park outside of Paris, allowing for it to be filmed in an enchanted atmosphere. At one point, an increasingly assertive Louis threatens to burn the fortress, but then, thanks to his mother’s intervention, simply has it stored as an unused toy. The fortress thus serves beautifully as a metaphor for Mazarin’s increasing isolation after the release of the prince de Condé in January 1651. The newly assertive Condé and his allies soon force Mazarin into exile, leading to the outbreak of renewed civil warfare, the princely Fronde.

The film tries to capture the political intrigue and duplicity of the princely Fronde. Many contemporaries saw the prince de Condé as the epitome of the perfect prince, but the film characterizes him as brash, aggressive, and domineering at court—yet also plagued by doubt, remorse, and sexual impotence in private. The prince de Condé’s brother, Armand de Bourbon prince de Conti, is caricatured as a libertine and a political non-entity who pouts and picks his nose, instead of a powerful prince of the blood who succeeded in taking control of the frondeur military forces in Paris at the height of the Fronde. The duc de Nemours, duchesse de Longueville, and other princely frondeurs appear as plotters and supporters of Condé. The princes are portrayed as rowdy boors, displaying little civilité and observing none of the formality of seventeenth-century court ceremonies and etiquette. The extent of the social disorder and civil warfare during the princely Fronde is implied through references to rebel Bordeaux and the provincial frondeurs. The royal family accompanies a royalist army to besiege Bordeaux, where young Louis and Philippe brashly join the fighting against Anne’s wishes. Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne vicomte de Turenne appears leading the army that Mazarin has raised for the king.

Louis XIV’s uncle, Gaston de Bourbon duc d’Orléans, is portrayed as a likeable and ever-whistling schemer, whose royal lineage and position as lieutenant-général du royaume make him powerful during the princely Fronde. His fantastically wealthy daughter, la Grande Mademoiselle, competes for the affections of young Louis and other court nobles throughout the film. Gaston celebrates his royal lineage in a scene depicting the public birthing of a son by his wife, the duchesse d’Orléans. Princely childbirth was often very public in seventeenth-century France, with numerous family members and servants in attendance, but the film’s splaying of the duchesse d’Orléans’s vagina toward Anne d’Autriche and the rest of the court as seated spectators presents an excessively sexualized voyeurism that is anachronistic. The film builds tension by emphasizing that the young Louis’s uncle has now sired a son and potential heir to the throne. However, Gaston hesitates to seize power, which then allows the princes and Mazarin to outmaneuver him and eventually to send him into exile.

Various plotlines converge on the dramatic battle of Faubourg Saint-Antoine in July 1652, when Turenne’s royal army traps Condé’s forces in the eastern suburbs of Paris, under the shadow of the Bastille. While Gaston hesitates, his daughter, la Grande Mademoiselle, acts to open the gates and save Condé, only to watch helplessly later at the Hôtel de Ville as the prince’s troops slaughter the Parisian leaders who had betrayed them. The prince de Condé’s crackdown in Paris prompts a brief second exile of Mazarin in August 1652, but Louis XIV’s support soon allows the cardinal to outmaneuver the princely frondeurs and return to the capital in triumph.

Louis, enfant roi is a rich historical film that suggests many potential classroom applications, if its limitations can be overcome. The DVD version currently available comes without subtitles and therefore requires knowledge of French. Some scenes that rely less on dialogue could be used in European or World history courses. The film’s overt sexuality and sexualized language might, however, offend some students.  Roger Planchon’s vision of the Fronde was strongly endebted to his theatrical background, especially in seventeenth-century French drama.  There are some missed opportunities: no depiction of the 1648 lit de justice or of the celebration of the king’s majority in 1651. Repeatedly, Planchon renders the court through lavish costumes and lush colors, but divorces it from the rest of noble culture and public pageantry.

Planchon’s film does not address the key historical debate over whether the Fronde was a conventional political revolt or modern revolution.[6] Instead it emphasizes feuding among the princes, in the ways that Corneille’s contemporary play, Nicomède, which was produced at the height of the Fronde in 1651, approaches such violence. It pays no heed to political clientage.[7] Absolutism and state power are conveyed through the increasing maturity and decisiveness of the adolescent king. In the closing scene, a gilded Louis XIV performs his first role as the rising sun in the 1653 Ballet de la Nuit, now truly embodying le Roi Soleil.

Roger Planchon Director, Louis, enfant roi (1993), color, France, Les Films du Losange, Centre Européen cinématographique Rhône-Alpes, TSF Productions. Running Time: 160 min.

  1. Paul Sonnino, Mazarin’s Quest: The Congress of Westphalia and the Coming of the Fronde (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  2. Nancy Nichols Barker, Brother to the Sun King: Philippe, Duke of Orléans (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
  3. Christian Jouhaud, Mazarinades: la Fronde des mots (Paris: Aubier, 1985).
  4. In Katherine Crawford, Perilous Performances: Gender and Regency in Early Modern France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 129.
  5. Orest Ranum, Paris in the Age of Absolutism: An Essay, rev. ed. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), 141-146.
  6. Orest Ranum, The Fronde: A French Revolution, 1648-1652 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1993).
  7. See Sharon Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients in Seventeenth-Century France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).


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