If anybody wants to explain the extensive, intricate and French governmental aid system for cinema and TV, they could do worse than watch “Versailles,” an English-language Canal Plus Creation Originale and one of the French pay TV operators’s most ambitious series ever, whose third and final season opens Canneseries April 4, before premiering on Canal Plus in France on April 23. The series will then premiere in the U.S. on Ovation starting in October.
Played by George Blagden (“Les Miserables,” “Vikings”), Louis XIV, the Sun King and still Europe’s longest-reigning monarch, built Versailles, created fashion, forged the identity of France as a byword for culture. He also created the idea, extended by Napoleon, of a central French state – centralized in his person – which oversaw everything and everyone, to the benefit and glory of France. Such was his extraordinary legacy, that both ideas – culture, the state – survive until this day.
Over 30 hours, in a career milestone, Blagden portrays the complexities of a man who in Seasons 1 and 2 seems at times to sacrifice everything – his love for his brother, feelings for his lover – to maintain his suzerainty, ushering in tenets of modern France on the back of a medieval idea: Absolute monarchy.
Blagden talked to Variety about Versailles Season 3, teasing out its sense and structure, on the eve of Canneseries. He did so with notable humility for someone who has played a monarch ruling by divine right for most of the last three years.
How do you feel, having wrapped “Versailles”?
We found out that Season 3 was the last a couple of months before filming. It’s a weird feeling – a sort of closing of a book, if you like. Knowing you will never play that character again is quite sad. That said, I hope the third season is the pinnacle of what we tried to achieve on “Versailles,” a nice final chapter.
“Versailles” to date drills down on the tragic psychology of absolute power. Will Season 3 continue this?
Louis XIV reigned with this psychology of absolute power. In Seasons 1 and 2, he intelligently positioned people around him to enable him to get to that place. The real tragedy of that psychology is that those people around him spent a lot of Season 1 and 2 telling him to trust his own instincts, convincing him that absolute power was his to have. What we will end up seeing in Season 3, the tragedy, is that he then ignores those people when they try to set him back on a straight course, because they have advised him that absolute power is something to fight for. That’s the tragedy of Louis. I’ve never thought of it as a tragedy, but it really is a tragedy.
What impact has playing Louis XIV had on you as an actor?
I think I said for Season 1 and Season 2 that I liked to keep my work and my life separate, and alluded to the idea that characters don’t often have a big effect on you as an actor. But it’s simply not true when you spend that much time with a character, 30 hours over three years. Especially on a show like ours where you are actually dressed as Louis XIV, in his shoes, in the Hall of Mirrors which he built for real. That obviously has an effect on you.
What effect in particular?
I don’t think I was a very obvious choice when they cast me in Season 1: George doesn’t have many similarities in life to Louis. I don’t crave power: What we were talking about a moment ago doesn’t come naturally to me. So playing a character like that has enabled me in my own life to explore things like self-confidence. You get to explore other parts of your own personality you didn’t know you had. I’m not saying I enjoy absolute power or living like a totalitarian 17th century monarch. However, there are certain aspects of playing the Sun King that have been very enjoyable. I will try to hold onto some of them as I move forward.
Season 3 looks like Season 2 on steroids. There are far more political problems – the Papacy, beaten but not bowed Holy Roman Emperor Leopold 1, and the poor of Paris; Maintenon replaces Montespan as mistress; a man in an iron mask substitutes Season 2’s Affair of the Poisons These new narratives are tabled, then mixed at more breakneck speed. But would you agree?
Definitely. I remember getting the script to Season 3 and thinking “O.K., this is slightly less workload for me.” When you set up a series you concentrate on perhaps a central character or group of characters. Particularly with Louis in the first seasons, it felt like all the drama happened around him. He was the center of the wheel. In Season 3, we create a whole new context for the show: the people of Paris: We see for the first time the tannery where Guillaume and his sister Jeanne work. We get to see what it was like to be at the other end of the spectrum and not in the ridiculous luxury of Versailles. That’s sort of what you want to do with long-form TV anyway. Set up a world in Season 1 and, as you go on, explore it more fully and intricately. Modern audiences are so intelligent, they work at such a fast pace that if you don’t give enough stimulus at a breakneck speed they will become disinterested.
One key issue in Season 3 seems to be legacy. Louis making history to go down in history. But his achievement – the opulence of Versailles, absolute power, pre-dominion in Europe – and ambition means he isn’t moving with the times. Across the channel, Charles II already ruled with a parliament. Louis mouths but doesn’t really believe that a king does not rule a people but ruled for a people. One consequence, one century later was the French Revolution. But maybe I’m totally wrong….
Essentially Louis XIV created exclusivity. If we look at how we live our lives today, many of us are members of clubs or gyms. We search out exclusivity. He created the world of fashion at Versailles. Where he was different to other European leaders was that he was just so good at it, that once he got so far down that avenue of absolute power, even though you referenced England starting to adapt much earlier than France, he couldn’t. go back.
I feel your performance in Season 3 could be about containment. Calculating when to show your feelings is of course part of growing up. Season 3 looks like it will be a bitter-sweet, latter-year coming of age.
I adore the character of Madame de Maintenon in Season 3. We see in Season 3 how she was really the catalyst for his true coming of age. I guess, ultimately, what made him the greatest monarch in the world and didn’t make him burn out was because this extraordinary woman came into his life at the right time and made sure that his extraordinary legacy would be maintained. I think that struggle was the most enjoyable part for me in Season 3, Louis’ wrestling with becoming a grown-up, even though we have seen him mature a lot over Season 1 and 2.
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