selenak: (Max by Misbegotten)
[personal profile] selenak
Since the other Borgias left me in the mood for over the top historical melodrama, and since it was available, I marathoned the second season of Versailles. (My first season review is here.) Aka, the show with the general accuracy of The Tudors (which is to say more than than the all around anachronistic crack like Reign, but generally not that much, though the occasional clever use of historical fact actually happens), produced by Canal just as Borgia, with the main selling point to internet fandom that there’s canon m/m prominently featured, courtesy of Louis XIV.’s brother Philippe d’Orleans, aka Monsieur, played by the increasingly gorgeous Alexander Vlahos. The second season tackles the affair of the poisons, one of the most notorious events in the reign of Louis XIV., but just as it did in the first season with just about any historic event fictionalizes the hell out of it, including, mystifyingly, changing the name of the main supplier of the poisons in question. Instead of La Voisin (first name Catherine), we have “Madame Agathe”. (Otoh the black mass celebrating renegade priest gets to stay Father Etienne Guibourg, which means the first time he is introduced in a seemingly benign undercover identity, the more historically versed parts of the audience know who he is and what he’s infamous for.) In terms of historical characters, we also get introduced to the delightful Liselotte von der Pfalz, the Princess Palatinate, and may I say that I was hugely relieved the Versailles version is great, because the original is one of my favourite figures of the era, due to all those vivid letters she penned for the folks back home, and as Versailles’ first season unfortunately reduced Monsieur’s first wife Henriette to a very passive, agenda-less character, which the original definitely was not, I was a bit afraid something similar might happen to Liselotte, the second Madame. But no. She’s blunt, no-nonsense, determined to make the best of a bad situation, as all versions of Liselotte should be. (Mind you, this show still obeys the Hollywood rule of plain and beauty, so when Monsieur’s lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine, ridicules Liselotte’s fashion and looks, it’s not clear what he’s on about since the actress is pretty – whereas historical Liselotte cheerfully admitted to her plainness in youth and weathered stoutness in age, comparing her looks as a middleaged woman to a roasted pig – and so is her wardrobe.)

On to more spoilery musings

Generally, this season is darker than the first one, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but mostly feels appropriate given the main event it circles around. For all the unabashed soap opera and silliness, it manages to get across its main point, that the affair of the poisons was the inevitable result of Louis’ having transformed the French nobility from lords of their own domains into minions at Versailles where being with the King is the highest ambition achievable, that the very idea of Versailles is its own poison. Madame Agathe supplies the stuff, but she doesn’t persuade a single person to poison anyone (with one exception near the end of the season) – the nobles turning killers of each other due so to their own volition and initiative. Ditto for the love potions and opiates. While characters like Bontemps and the Queen blame Athenais de Montespan for corrupting the King, the show actually makes the case for the shoe being on the other foot – it’s being Louis’ mistress, his maitresse en titre, that corrupts Athenais, reducing her from a high spirited witty and determined woman to a paranoid wreck willing to cross more and more lines until there’s nothing left anymore. And she’s not paranoid without reason – in addition to potential rivals, the church really is gunning for her. (In between seasons, some of the Versailles scriptwriters must have brushed through their biographies again, because lo and behold, as opposed to the first season the Catholic Church actually is a big power factor in the second, which, dare I say it, is a bit closer to 17th century France than most versions of the Musketeers tale tend to be. Also, it’s actually presented as a part of the court’s life throughout the season, i.e. we see the main characters going to mass and to confession and so forth, not just in one or two episodes when it’s plot relevant.)

There is something of a parallel here in the second season relationship between Philippe and the Chevalier in that the Chevalier’s insecurities and fears about his status in Monsieur’s life cause him to behave worse and worse until it almost comes to the breaking point, i.e. he’s creating the very situation he’s afraid of. But because the Versailles’ version of the Chevalier de Lorraine isn’t the nasty piece of work he comes across in everyone’s memoirs, he gets to redeem himself and reconcile with Philippe in the finale. Still, this is a bad season for lovers; a better one for non-romantic relationships, including those between foes. After the first season hilariously tried to make France, aka the 400 pound gorilla of European politics, appear to be menaced by the Dutch (as opposed to, you know, the other way around), the second season faces up to the fact there’s no way you can ignore who is Goliath and who is David in that equation, and instead transforms William of Orange into Louis’ One True Worthy Opponent, whom he has foe yay with when they ahistorically meet during the campaign and spend the night together. (Not like that. Well, almost not.) This ends with them earnestly admitting that nobody else gets them like they get each other. Trust Versailles to come up with a historical ‘ship no one has ever shipped yet.

As for the original non-historical characters Versailles introduced in s1, they fare really badly in s2. Jacques the gardener whom Louis has philosophical chats with is cruelly killed due to this season’s dastardly conspiracy. Claudine the doctor is murdered by the evil Satanist priest (I suspect this is mostly so we actually hate Madame Agathe and Father Etienne, because the various nobles offing each other sure won’t do the trick) when she’s onto the poison plot. And Fabien Marchal still glaringly illustrates what happens when a fiction tells you a character is one thing while showing him to be another, since he’s as incompetent in the second season as he was in the first, while the show insists he’s a ruthless tough guy combining the jobs of chief of police, head torturer and security boss. When Louis finally fires him mid season 2 after various deaths by poison include two people who were in Fabien’s custody at the time, we’re clearly supposed to see Fabien as wronged, ill rewarded for his loyalty and hard-done by, but I only wondered what took Louis so long. And when Bontemps after Fabien returns to his job near the end of season says that Versailles now feels safe again, I had to laugh, because Fabien in two seasons never saves anyone from getting killed except for one token person per season while notoriously failing to save anyone else while people around him drop like flies.

(Mind you: I suspect one reason why I find Fabien so completely unbelievable even in the kind of show Versailles is is due to having imprinted heavily on Desgrays, a character from the Angelique novels set in exactly the same era, who actually is a great morally ambiguous cop, good at detecting, cynical with some core ethics hidden underneath, prone to sarcasm and possibly my favourite character in said novels. And he has a friendship with occasional benefits thing going on with our heroine.)

On the bright side: as I mentioned, Liselotte. And everyone’s relationships and scenes with her, which just shine. Also, Versailles continues to be the sole fictional depiction of the era which makes Louis’ wife Marie Teresa into an interesting character, who is more clear-sighted than most of the nobles while having values at odds with modernity (staunch champion of the Catholic Church) and whose relationship with Louis is actually more interesting than the one he has with his mistress. (Mistress singular: Louis actually is faithful to Athenais de Montespan for as long as the relationship lasts and while at the end of the season starting a new one with Francoise Scarron, the new Marquise de Maintenon, gets immediately told sex isn’t on the menu in that one.) As for Madame Scarron, to become Madame de Maintenon, since Athenais’ seven children by Louis are reduced to a single pregnancy and a baby which soon dies, she doesn’t get to be governess for long, but remains a background character for much of the season until coming to the foreground in the last three episodes, neatly enigmatic in that the audience can’t tell whether she’s sincere and simply using the situation created by both the Queen and Athenais de Montespan in her favour, or whether she planned all of this all along.

Sidenote: while the Montespan children are sorely diminished in number, Philippe in the second season suddenly gains his historical two surviving daughters by the late Henriette. Which is to say: last season presented Henriette’s ill-fated pregnancy as her first and only, this season suddenly informs us Philippe and Henriette had two surviving daughters (true) when Liselotte brings them up in her first encounter with Philippe. Historical Henriette got pregnant eight times (which ended in either miscarriages or dead babies) in ten years, and remembering this in combination with Athenais’ kids being reduced to one made me realize that most historical shows and movies if they claimed verisimilitude would have to show a great many of their female characters in various stages of pregnancy a lot of the time. Presumably they avoid this because pregnant women aren’t regarded as sexy. To its credit, though, Versailles has Athenais visibly pregnant in all but one of her sex scenes with Louis.

The most interesting-to-me relationship still remains the one between the two royal brothers, who don’t get that many scenes this season due to being estranged for much of it, but each one they get continues to be full of tension and push-pull, love/hate, in short, pressing just the right buttons for me.

In conclusion: continues to be not a must, and might drive you crazy if you try to match the dates of any given event to its historical counterpoint, but for what it is, it’s entertaining enough to keep me watching. Next season supposedly will tackle the Man in the Iron Mask mystery. Bring it on! As for the Affair of the Poisons, I do wish someone would film Judith Merkle Riley’s The Oracle Glass, reviewed here, which for my money remains by far the best fictional depiction of that event, with definitely the most interesting La Voisin.
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