‘Versailles’ Season 3 Ups Tempo, Bontemps, Maintenon, and Yes, There’s a Man in an Iron Mask (SPOILERS)

Variety drills down on the opening stretches of “Versailles’” last season

Alexander Vlahos (Monsieur/Philippe d'Orléans), George Blagden (Louis XIV)
Thibault Grabherr

It’s the beginning of the end. Over its first two seasons,”Versailles” has built up a loyal fanbase for its portrait of the rise, achievement and now legacy of Louis XIV, Versailles Sun King, who turned France into the most powerful nation-state in Europe.

Canneseries, France’s new TV festival, opened April 4 with the first two episodes of the third and final 10-hour season. Very few of “Versailles’” viewers will have made it to the Riviera. So, instead of a blow-by-blow account of Eps. 1 and 2, here’s a drill down on the last season’s set-up and opening events as Louis XIV, having got what he wanted, predictably want more.

“Versailles”‘s third season will premiere in the U.S. on Ovation starting in October.

Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched Season 3, episode one and two of ‘Versailles’ 

French pay TV operator Canal Plus most ambitious Création Originale to date – in budget, its English-language, set of the real-life Chateau, 30 our portrait of  central character – “Versailles’” Season 3 opens with a declaration of intentions. A horse thunders over the camera on a track through a nighttime wooded copse. Its hooded horseman arrives at the Bastille, enters its deepest dungeon – a kinetic scene worthy of the dashing Fabien Marchal, Louis XIV’s head of Versailles security detail. Sp who would have thought it? The face under the hood is, instead, the weathered mien of Alexandre Bontemps, the dog-loyal valet to the king, an avuncular voice of common sense and caution to the growing monarch throughout Seasons 1 and 2.

Cut to the face of the prisoner in the dungeon: He – or she, why not – is wearing a black bolted  iron mask.Vut to credit intro.

“From the outset we were determined to put Bontemps at the centre of Season 3.,” comment “Versailles” Season 3 Andrew Bampfield and Tim Loane in a writers’ statement.

“One of our favorite characters, a constant quiet presence, this was our chance to really test his loyalty to the king, to force him to the edge, to put Louis’ future in his hands in a way no one could have foreseen.”

Challenge 2 for Louis: Bumptious Holy Roman Emperor Leopold 1. Early Episode 1 features returning French troops, trotting through the gateway at Versailles, after the largely victorious Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78. Leopold I lost that war to France. But you’d hardly believe that as he steps out of his carriage in the Versailles Palace forecourt, mouths words of supplication as if by rote. Louis aims to annex Spain. Leopold stands in his way, and plans to frustrate him, marrying his ingenue Hapsburg niece to Spain’s childless King Charles II. To further his plan, Leopold makes a romantic play for Queen Marie-Therese, the Spanish king’s sister. Unlikely as it may seem, she melts in his arms. Louis soon has a rival not only for Spain but for the affections of his own spouse.

But maybe he needs challenges. Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the king’s brother, Monsieur to courtiers, the victor in the French-Dutch War, returns to Versailles with Leopold.

Not to be upstaged, Louis XIV has a surprise for everyone: “A beacon to the world reflecting the power and glory of God himself,” proclaims Louis XIV, typically conflating God and himself. He throws open doors the door to the just-completed Hall of Mirrors. Shot in the real Hall of Mirrors, the scene finally reveals Versailles’ architectural masterpiece. But it is typical of the series that it spends so little time on its architectural grandeur, far more on the reactions of the main characters – Monsieur’s guarded suspicion, for example – climaxing with Louis himself praying. More than veneration, Louis’ outstretched arms are a symbol of triumph.

Louis is “at a point in his life where he has achieved everything he wants,” George Blagden, who plays the monarch. commented to Variety.  “The Hall of Mirrors has been built; he’s won nearly every war in Europe he can win, and we see that in the bravado with Leopold at the start.”

Challenge 3: Paris’ poor. In pointed contrast, “Versailles” Ep. 1 cuts from the Hall of Mirrors to a VFX shot of the higgledly-piggledly streets of central Paris, where Guillaume, who saved Monsieur’s life on the battlefield, returns to the humble tannery he runs with his sister Jeanne. Times are bad for French common folk. Louis XIV has financed his wars through taxation. Early Season 3 chronicles his attempts to wring yet more money out of the French, and their rebelliousness – though not outright rebellion – as they are pushed to the brink. Louis XIV’s draconian reaction features the most ghastly execution of the whole series.

A fourth road-bump: The Pope. Louis flip-flops on his attitudes to the French poor. Episode 1 climaxes, for example, with a night-scene of the Sun King literally bringing light to Paris, having installed lamps in the city’s streets.

“The complexity of Season 3 is: Once you’ve got everything you wanted, how do you sustain that happiness? If it can even be called happiness,” commented Blagden.

Characterizing the unquenchable ambitions of the warrior King, Louis XIV answers that by wanting more. He seeks but fails to gain Papal approval to annex Spain. The Pope’s riposte is to dispatch the oily Cardinal Leto to Versailles.

“We created Cardinal Leto as the real villain of the piece – the ultimate focus of Louis’ ire,” said Bampfield and Loane.

“A cunning diplomat and ruthless tactician, Leto would stop at nothing to force the maverick into submission – and there’s nothing Louis likes more than a challenge like that.”

Maintenon. Luckily for Louis, he has Madame de Maintenon by his side.

“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,” Blagden has told Variety.

Just how Maintenon will support Louis remains to be seen, even by the end of Episode 2. Disgraced, Maintenon takes herself off in disgrace to a convent at the beginning of Season 3. There, pressured by its Mother Superior, she finally comes clean, in extreme close-up,  her real ambition: “Power, dominion, to crush my enemies. I want to feel the fire of our Lord through my veins.” It’s maybe the most forceful scene in the whole of Episode 1 and 2. In some ways, Louis and Maintenon’s partnership was the meeting of like minds.