The King is Dancing and The King’s Way

Issue 6

Life at the court of Louis XIV has never really gone out of fashion.  Apart from public interest, historians continue to debate its significance in defining the nature of French absolutism. Norbert Elias’s interpretation of the Sun King’s court was at the heart of The Civilizing Process, one of the most influential works of cultural history ever published. Filmmakers, too, have been attracted by its interpretive possibilities. The two films reviewed here nicely capture one of the central aspects of Louis XIV’s court – the tension between public and private.  Although both approach the issue by focusing on a close associate of the king, their perspectives could hardly be more different. The spectacular Le roi danse (The King is Dancing) uses the life of the court composer of ballets, Gianbattista Lully, to showcase how the young Louis used lavish cultural displays to enhance his royal prestige. In contrast, L’Allee du roi (The King’s Way) reveals intimate aspects of Louis’s private life by tracing the trajectory of Constant d’Aubigné from genteel provincial poverty through elevation to the Marquise de Maintenon and on to her morganatic marriage to the aging king, an event that was never admitted publicly.  As our reviewers duly note, however, both are rather narrow, even distorted visions.  If only more political films were released with English subtitles, notably Louis, enfant roi (1996) with its focus on the Fronde, then students could begin putting public and private aspects of Louis XIV’s court into their larger political context.

The King is Dancing

Michael P. Breen
Reed College

The court of the Sun King is an enduring subject of fascination.  This remains true despite a generation of revisionist scholarship on absolutism and the reign of Louis XIV which questioned the traditional view of Versailles as a gilded cage where France’s once mighty and rebellious aristocracy was distracted with lavish festivities, courtly protocol, and unceasing contests for royal favor while the king and his ministers monopolized political power.  In our own media-saturated age, students respond almost instinctively to Louis’s deliberate and self-conscious use of art, culture, and ritual as instruments of political power and international grandeur. The protocols governing Louis’s day, from the intricate lever and coucher at either end to royal meals, garden strolls, and even trips to the privy, accounts of court life provided by Saint-Simon, the Duchess of Orléans, and others, and the outpouring of cultural production, ranging from court festivals such as Les plaisirs de l’île enchantée (1664), to the plays of Molière and Racine, to the creation of an array of Royal Academies (for art, music, belles-lettres, science, and architecture) provide great material for classroom discussions. So, too, do Louis’s own Memoires for the Instruction of the Dauphin, where he describes the value of court entertainments and the cultivation of artistic and cultural gloire for controlling the nobility, overawing the common people, and impressing foreign dignitaries, a process that Peter Burke has traced in detail in The Fabrication of Louis XIV.[1]

For many students, one of the most fascinating anecdotes about Louis XIV is the fact that he, like his father, regularly danced in court ballets. Like Colin Jones in the opening of The Great Nation, students immediately notice the elderly Louis’s pride in his legs in Rigaud’s famous portrait, and they are intrigued by images of the young Sun King in costume as Apollo for Le ballet du nuit (1653) or as a Fury in Les Noces de Pelée et de Thétus (1654).[2] In this context, reading several works together — Mark Franko’s analysis of Louis’s cross-dressing in many of his roles, Jeffrey Merrick’s article on the mazarinades, Katie Crawford’s study of female regents, and Sarah Hanley’s article “Engendering the State” — works well to foster classroom discussion about the performative and gendered nature of royal authority in early modern France.[3] Louis the dancer somehow becomes more tangible and approachable for students than the “roi-machine” of Versailles, to whose dinner courtiers were required to bow and upon whose portrait one could never turn one’s back.

Louis’s career as a dancer, as well as his pursuit of musical, theatrical, artistic, and ceremonial glory, is the subject of Gérard Corbiau’s Le Roi Danse (2000), awkwardly translated as The King is Dancing (The King Dances, the English subtitle given in the opening credits, seems more appropriate). Based on Philippe Beaussant’s biography, Lully, ou le musicien du soleil (1992), The King is Dancing centers on the relationship between Louis and his surintendant de la musique, Jean-Baptiste Lully.[4] As a film, The King is Dancing has its merits — most notably the musical score, which highlights the work of one of the late seventeenth-century’s most important and influential composers. As a classroom aid, however, it is much more like Vatel (dir. Roland Joffé, 2000) than La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (dir. Roberto Rosselini, 1966) — useful for some of its scenes of court life and aristocratic festivities, but wildly selective and misleading in its portrayals of Louis and his reign.

Born the son of a Florentine miller in 1632, Giovanni Battista Lulli was one of the remarkable success stories of Louis XIV’s reign. Brought to France in the 1640s as a lackey and tutor in Italian for La Grande Mademoiselle, Lully came to Louis’s attention when he danced alongside the young king in Le ballet du nuit. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed compositeur de la musique instrumentale du roi and then head of the petits violins du roi. In collaboration with Louis XIV’s court poet, Issac de Benserade, and Louis’s dancing master and choreographer, Pierre Beauchamps, Lully became the chief composer of ballets du cour.  He quickly gained fame and, in open rejection of his Italian origins, became naturalized in 1661.  Lully largely defined a “French style” of music. As Georgia Cowart explains, “one of Lully’s greatest contributions, and a possible explanation of the strong political impact of his compositional output, was his assimilation of various amorphous elements of preexisiting repertoires into a distinctive French style.” Lully is credited with creating the French overture, court dances, and lyric tragedy. “His genius,” Cowart writes, “was to draw generously on an Italian musical language, while assimilating, framing, and containing it in such a way that the impression of the whole was uniquely French.”[5] A capable actor, Lully also collaborated with Molière to create the comédie-ballet. He wrote the music for La Princesse d’Elide (1664), George Dandin (1668), and Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) among other works. After falling out with Molière in 1671, Lully turned to writing operas.  He secured the royal privilege for French “tragédies en musique,” then, together with his librettist Philippe Quinault, developed the form and established its reputation. Lully profited immensely from his effective monopoly over the performance of opera. Lully was also a skillful administrator and enjoyed the favor and protection of both the king and Colbert, who gave him the prestigious venal office of secrétaire du roi in 1681.  Only after a sexual scandal involving a young page in 1685 did Lully’s relationship with the king sour. While conducting a Te Deum on 8 January 1687 to celebrate Louis’s recovery from life-threatening surgery on his anal fistula, Lully accidentally bruised his toes with the heavy baton he used to keep time by pounding on the floor. The injury seemed minor at first, but several weeks later it developed an abscess. As a former dancer, Lully rejected his doctors’ advice to amputate, which eventually led to gangrene.  After carefully setting his affairs in order, Lully died on 22 March.[6]

The King is Dancing opens with this fateful 1687 Te Deum, making clear from the start that melodrama will be the order of the day, despite a certain degree of attention to historical verisimilitude. A clearly overwrought Lully (Boris Terral) begins despite the king’s absence after telling the scandalized courtiers that the king won’t be coming (presumably because of his displeasure with Lully and not because he was recovering from surgery). Feverishly beating time with his baton, Lully stabs himself in the foot, letting out a bloodcurdling cry of pain. Corbiau’s Lully does not limp from the church and continue on with his daily routines before succumbing over two months later. He is a romantic, artistic hero — a “wrestler with life, sometimes above and sometimes underneath” as he tells Molière (Tchéky Karyo) at one point in the film. Surrounded by physicians who insist that his leg must be amputated, Lully proclaims that they will not cut off the dancer’s leg.  The film then dissolves into a flashback of his relationship with Louis, a relationship that can best be understood as a love triangle between Lully, Louis, and the French state, with the Italian composer forever doomed by his unrequited love for a king who, he tells Molière, “is the best of me.”

The flashback begins with a young Louis waiting to take the stage as Apollo at the end of Le ballet du nuit. Linking Lully’s rise with Louis’s own assertion of royal power, the scene centers on Lully’s gift of a pair of shoes which he says will allow Louis “to tower over all men” and his request that the young king make him French because Italians are detested in Paris.  Lully claims that his “soul is French” and that he wants only to serve Louis. Louis promises to grant his request once he is truly king, but laments that for the moment he is “only a king of music and dance.”  He then ascends to the stage, where he will make former Frondeurs, including the Prince of Conti (the only grandée of note in the film), dance to his orders as the sun restoring light to the darkness of France.

Louis’s complaint that he is “only a king of music and dance” is especially ironic, since in many ways that is what he remains throughout the film. Students who watch The King is Dancing might be forgiven for thinking that Louis’s only concerns as a monarch were to dance in ballets, stage theatrical performances at court, and build a lavish palace and gardens that would serve as a backdrop for both endeavors. Corbiau’s Louis, incarnated with a barely concealed emotional intensity by Benoît Magimel, is less King of France and Navarre or Rex Christianissimus than he is Louis, Lord of the Dance.

This is perhaps most evident in Corbiau’s portrayal of the council meeting where Louis declared his intention to rule without a first minister following Mazarin’s death. Rather than follow the lead of Roberto Rosselini’s famous recreation of the episode where Louis informs his incredulous ministers to sign nothing without his approval and to act only on his orders, Corbiau presents Louis’ prise de pouvoir as little more than an aside. The only clearly identifiable figures in the room are Anne of Austria and Conti, who plays a major role throughout the film as a leader of the dévôt party at court. While Colbert, Le Tellier, Lionne, and other ministers are in the credits, they appear only at the end, after assorted doctors, servants, midwives, dancers and other minor personages. None of Louis’s ministers, not even Colbert (who sagely counseled Lully to refuse the surintendant des finances Nicolas Fouquet’s request to compose music for his ill-fated reception at Vaux-le-Vicomte) merits the least attention. Indeed, Fouquet’s name is not even in the credits and the film makes no allusion to his arrest or trial. Instead, Louis compares his taking of power to a changing of theatrical scene and, in an emotional confrontation with his stern, overbearing mother, asserts his independence by declaring that his first act will be to create a Royal Academy of Dance along the lines of his father’s Académie Française. All Louis wants to do, it seems, is dance. Louis consolidates his hold on power not by controlling access to the royal council or disgracing his overbearing superintendant of finances, but by dancing in another court ballet, with Anne and Conti obliged to watch from the front row.

The King is Dancing, in short, reduces the first twenty-five years of Louis’s personal reign to a Manichean struggle between the somber religious piety of Anne, Conti, and the dévôts, on the one hand, and the exuberant and passionate creativity of Lully and Molière, backed by the young king, on the other.  Louis contrasts his vision of God as a deity of life and light with his mother’s foreboding God of penitence. Versailles, in the vision Louis articulates to Le Vau and Le Nôtre, is to be a sort of pre-lapsarian Eden shaped by the monarch’s unyielding will. “We will make this swamp dance as we will the entire kingdom,” he proclaims.

Like every major event depicted throughout the film, the royal expedition through the grounds of Versailles is accompanied by Lully and his musicians. Whether Louis is posing for a portrait or engaged in an amorous rendez-vous with one his mistresses, Lully is close at hand to provide the appropriate soundtrack. Indeed, when Louis takes ill after falling into the water during the expedition to lay out Versailles, Lully not only saves his own fortune, but literally prevents France from falling into the clutches of Anne and Conti with his music. With Louis hovering between life and death, Lully races home.  Ignoring his wife’s life-threatening struggle to give birth to their first child, Lully grabs his violin, yells, “il a besoin de moi!,” and races back to the king’s anteroom, where the music of the petits violins prompts Louis to make a miraculous recovery.

The film then turns to Lully and Molière’s collaboration in creating the comédie-ballet, creating the impression that the two worked together almost exclusively; in fact, Lully worked with a number of collaborators, and Molière was building his theater company in Paris. On multiple occasions, Corbiau’s Louis says (in terms that could have come straight out of the Memoires) that he is using court festivities to distract and buy off his enemies. In another pivotal scene, the now mature king reminds Lully that they are not friends because Louis, as king, “has no friends.” Louis presents an almost Neoplatonic vision, saying that he wants music and dance to incarnate the “universal harmony” of his reign, declaring that France must have “the most beautiful and esteemed music in all of Europe.” Despite these nods towards historical explanation, however, The King is Dancing ultimately makes clear that Louis’s real motive in sponsoring Lully and Molière is to get back at Anne and the dévôts. In one scene, Lully tells Molière that the king is using to him to attack his mother and that the two of them are nothing but the king’s weapons, to be tossed aside when they break. Their comédie-ballet successfully scandalizes Anne and the dévôts while delighting Louis and the other courtiers. The controversy around Tartuffe, whose performance provides one of the film’s most amusing and memorable scenes, gives the impression that Molière was little more than the young king’s ghost-writer. Louis has “prescribed the words we’re to use on stage,” Molière tells Lully at one point, and after the king yields to his mother and the clergy and bans the play, Molière remarks in disbelief that Louis had not only approved the draft but pushed him to make the religious satire more biting.

Following Anne’s death and Louis’s decision to put an end to his dancing career after a spectacular stumble on stage, Molière and Lully redouble their efforts to put theater and music in the service of the king’s glory in a manner that will both withstand the dévôts’ assaults and avenge the king’s recent insult at the hands of the Turks. The result is Le bourgeois gentilhomme, particularly the Turkish ballet scene at the end of the play, which the film stages to great effect. The performance, however, marks a definitive break between Molière and Lully; the latter is no longer able to tolerate his diminished status now that Louis has hung up his dancing shoes. In the film’s version of events, Lully obtains the privilège for French opera to thwart Molière’s ambitions to write a tragédie en musique and to crush the dévot composer Robert Cambert, his musical, religious, and amorous nemesis throughout the film. Molière ripostes by writing and staging Le malade imaginaire in defiance of Lully’s prohibition against using more than two instruments and two singers during theatrical performance. In a scene that takes some reasonable artistic liberties with the well-known story of Molière’s death, the playwright collapses onstage and dies during a macabre ballet scene, with Lully in the audience fulminating at Molière’s defiance. The final sequence compresses Lully’s musical triumphs into a montage showing his growing estrangement from the king, who gradually becomes the somber, taciturn dévôt he once mocked as Madame de Maintenon’s influence at court grows. The flashback returns, full circle, to Lully’s fatal injury and eventual death.

Much like Vatel, which came out in the same year, The King is Dancing provides some useful scenes that can be used in the classroom to illustrate court life and aristocratic culture during Louis XIV’s early reign. The staging of Le ballet du nuit, with the young Louis ascending amidst a feu d’artifice to direct the movements of his former enemies, can be used in discussions of the Fronde, the development of courtly culture, and the relationship between art and power in the seventeenth century. The performances of Molière’s pieces, in particular Tartuffe, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, and Le malade imaginaire, would pair nicely with readings of the plays, discussions of the growing importance of theater in French society, or accounts of festive life at Versailles. A scene approximately 37 minutes into the film, where Lully and Molière’s triumphant first comédie-ballet is celebrated by the troupe with a mock wedding of Theater (Molière) and Music (Lully) also provides opportunities to talk about the relationship between popular and elite culture.

On the whole, however, the vision of Louis XIV and his court presented in The King is Dancing is not well-suited for classroom use. Corbiau’s Louis is hardly deliberate, rational, and calculating. If anything, he is the antithesis of Jean-Marie Patte’s cold, distant Louis XIV in Rosselini’s interpretation (though one could remark that this was because Magimel did not need to read his lines from off screen). Despite his expressed desire to use music and dance to incarnate the harmony of his political order, Louis often comes across as petulant and frivolous — a prima donna, as it were. At no point do we get a glimpse of the disciplined, highly structured, and carefully-regulated court life created by le roi soleil, where access to the royal person was strictly controlled and entire fortunes could be made or lost based on a royal glance or expression of favor. Dancing, festivities, and petty intrigue, all of which certainly had their place at court, are presented as the sum total of Louis’s reign. Molière and Lully appear to enjoy the kind of unfettered access to Louis that courtiers would have killed for and which belied their relatively humble social status. Louis, meanwhile, is given to overwrought emotional outbursts that hardly seem consistent with a king who knew that his every word and gesture was scrutinized for meaning. As Louis and his courtiers walk down the galerie des glaces in the final scene, one cannot help but think that Corbiau has installed fun-house mirrors in Versailles’ best-known room. Both Louis and his court can be recognized in The King is Dancing if one looks closely enough, but the image is always greatly exaggerated and wildly distorted. In the final analysis, then, certain scenes from The King is Dancing can be used effectively for classroom purposes, but only as an accompaniment, and never as a main act.

  1. Mémoires for the Instruction of the Dauphin, ed., Paul Sonnino (New York: Free Press, 1970); Peter Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
  2. Colin Jones, The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon, 1715-99 (New York: Penguin, 2002), 1-6.
  3. Mark Franko, “The King Cross Dressed: Power and Force in Royal Ballets,” in Sara E. Melzer and Kathryn Norberg, eds., From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998): 64-84; Jeffrey Merrick, “The Cardinal and the Queen: Sexual and Political Disorders in the Mazarinades,” French Historical Studies, 18 (1994): 667-699; Katherine Crawford, Perilous Performances: Gender and Regency in Early Modern France (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Sarah Hanley, “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France,” French Historical Studies 16 (1989): 3-27.
  4. Philippe Beaussant, Lully, ou le musicien du soleil (Paris: Gallimard, 1992).
  5. Georgia J. Cowart, The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 20. See also, Julia Prest, “The Politics of Ballet at the Court of Louis XIV,” in Jennifer Nevile, ed., Dance, Spectacle and the Body Politick, 1250-1750 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008): 229-40.
  6. R. H. F. Scott, Jean-Baptiste Lully (London: Peter Owen, 1973), 115-17.

Gérard Corbiau, Director, Le roi danse [The King is Dancing] (2002)/France/Color, K-Star/France 2 Cinéma/Canal +. Running Time: 112 mins.


The King’s Way

Junko Thérèse Takeda
Syracuse University

L’Allée du roi (The King’s Way), directed by Nina Companéez, is a French television drama which portrays the remarkable life of Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, from her alleged birth in prison in 1635 to her secret marriage to Louis XIV fifty years later. The four-hour film begins when d’Aubigné, (played by Dominique Blanc, famous for roles in La reine Margot and Indochine), an impoverished orphan returned to France from Martinique, is placed under the care of her godmother the comtesse de Nuillant.  She is soon introduced to the celebrated poet Paul Scarron, over twenty years her senior. Told by Nuillant that women of her circumstances have but two choices, “to take a lover or be a domestic,” then given a different choice by the unattractive and crippled Scarron, either to marry him or enter a convent, she chooses the marriage. While failing to guarantee financial stability and ending prematurely with the death of the poet, this marriage introduces d’Aubigné to Parisian literary society, to well-connected male suitors, and most importantly, to Françoise de Rochechoart-Montemart, Marquise de Montespan (Valentine Varilla), also known as Athénaïs, the mistress of Louis XIV (Didier Sandre). D’Aubigné, now widow Scarron, is entrusted with the care of the king’s illegitimate children by Montespan, who confides in her and has her raise the children in secrecy. The latter half of the film focuses on the deepening  relationship between d’Aubigné and Louis XIV, who, being steadily drawn to her because of her love for his children, becomes her lover.  The king ultimately takes d’Aubigné as his wife, but the vast difference in social status requires this to be done in secret and without consequences for royal inheritance.

The film’s greatest achievement lies in its ability to showcase the unpredictable reversals in fortune in French Old Regime court society. This is perhaps best demonstrated in Montespan’s warning to d’Aubigné, “today, everything; tomorrow, nothing,” before she herself is disgraced and loses her position as the king’s favorite. This emphasis on life’s sudden twists and turns is consistent through the film, as the audience follows d’Aubigné, and is compelled to empathize with her, through her pragmatic choices in friendships, marriage, and even in her decision to drape herself (though not consistently) in virtue. One can even feel sympathy for Montespan, who, in fits of jealousy, fear, and rage, repays d’Aubigné for her services by publicly humiliating her.

The film succeeds in showing that life at court was, indeed, a vicious struggle for survival, where disgrace and exile could cost the nobility, and particularly female aristocrats, their titles, reputations, and means of subsistence. This renders the film useful for teaching purposes, particularly for American students who tend to assume the worst of monarchies and aristocracies, and the Old Regime in France in particular, but without any genuine critical assessment. While the film certainly displays court society in all its pomp and extravagance, it also sheds light on the fragility of aristocratic power. It forces students to question the assumption that, in contrast to modern democratic societies, the Old Regime was characterized by immutable barriers between estates, where individuals were “stuck” in the circumstances into which they were born. The portrayal of Louis XIV’s ability to see through the caprice of his courtiers and raise the veuve Scarron to the exalted position of the Marquise de Maintenon highlights his ideal role as a dispenser of honor and justice.

While the film offers a compelling glimpse into the lives of aristocratic women in Louis XIV’s inner circle, and gives a thorough account of d’Aubigné’s life, its length and restricted plotlines somewhat limits its usefulness for college courses. A more suitable choice for classroom adoption is Le roi danse (The King is Dancing) directed by Gérard Corbiau, which explores similar themes of court patronage and rivalries.  It is just under two hours long and, thus, more concisely communicates a number of complex themes through the beautifully intertwined stories of three characters, Louis XIV, the Italian-born composer (and sodomite) Gianbattista Lully, and the dramatist Molière. It shows how Louis Quatorzian absolutism was far from inevitable and that the king wrested political control away from his mother and the high sword nobility by symbolically constructing his power through politically-charged dancing. The film addresses issues of homoerotics and gender, female political power, xenophobia, Orientalism and Turquerie. The film’s less sympathetic rendering of Louis XIV introduces the audience to the more authoritarian aspects of absolutism.

L’Allée du roi and Le roi danse share a common theme: the possibility of outsiders to attain positions of prestige in Louis Quatorzian France. Both also speak to Jurgen Habermas’ notion of representative publicity. Ultimately, however, L’Allée du roi is a romance, more committed to showing Louis XIV as a doting father and well-meaning husband, than to addressing major political events of the time, such as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the development of mercantilism, or the politics of war and diplomacy. The Cinderella-like narrative of a mistreated orphan who becomes the wife of the most powerful monarch to rule France is somewhat overplayed, as is the notion that d’Aubigné and Louis find “true love” over the shared experience of being solitary souls in the labyrinth of court intrigue. Indeed, the portrayal of the king’s “love” for d’Aubigné seems at times too modern and anachronistic. D’Aubigné’s insistence that she had little political influence over her king focuses the film on the daily experiences at court. In contrast, Le roi danse is more nuanced in its depiction of the king, and, under the guise of a story of two artists, provides a political narrative of propaganda and state-building appropriate for general lectures and upper-division seminars on Early Modern Europe, France or the Mediterranean, sexuality, art and culture.

That said, instructors can make profitable use of excerpts from L’Allée du roi as it raises interesting questions about gender, self-fashioning and power, and public versus private spheres in Old Regime France. How does d’Aubigné’s virtue empower her? How does a childless widow adopt the ideal of domesticity, demonstrated by her care for the royal children and later, by her founding of Saint-Cyr, home to poor women of aristocratic lineage (Disc One, chapters 8-12; Disc 2, chapters 6, 10)? How does the film portray d’Aubigné’s combination of submissiveness and audacity vis-à-vis other women of high birth and the king (Disc One, chapters 10, 11; Disc Two, chapters 1-5, 7)? The portrayal of the relationships between d’Aubigné and powerful men such as Scarron and the maréchal d’Albret could generate fruitful discussions regarding patronage and sexuality during the long reign of Louis XIV (Disc One, chapters 2-4). And her relationship with Louis XIV himself could be a springboard for debating whether the “public” nature of kingship allowed for any genuine “privacy” (Disc 2, chapters 8-9).

Nina Companéez, Director, L’Allée du roi [The King’s Way] (1996), France/Color, Ciné Mag Bodard/France 2/La Sept Arte/SFP Productions.  Running Time: 241 mins.

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