This is the third post on Netflix Versailles — one for each of the three seasons. The overarching storyline of season 3 is that of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ — the story of a claimant to the throne who lives as a prisoner, his head encased in a mask to suppress his threat to the man who reigns as king. The story is known from other films and books, but in Versailles — the extraordinary palace created from a royal hunting lodge by the reigning king, Louis XIV — it serves primarily to advance the theme of self-knowledge, or the ideal of ‘know thyself’, which is associated in an ancient Greek context with the Oracle at Delphi, and was cultivated in both season 1 and season 2.
In the first episodes of season 3, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos), brother of Louis, happens upon a mystery. When visiting a prison, he catches a momentary glimpse of a masked prisoner. He is promptly knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant. When the recovered Philippe investigates, he finds that the prisoner in the mask is now dead in an apparent suicide. Puzzled and frustrated, Philippe suddenly recalls that the man in the mask he glimpsed before being knocked out had blue eyes. The corpse just shown to him had brown eyes. He enlists Marchal (Tygh Runyan), head of the King’s secret police, to investigate the matter further. Philippe has no power over the King’s secret policeman and can appeal only to his interest in the task. Intrigued, Marchal agrees.
Episode 3 of season 2 in particular foreshadows the third season’s themes. Louis (George Blagden) has a dream in which he is an actor on stage addressing the court about his concerns and everyone laughs. Bontemps tells him he isn’t the king; that he is an actor, not a king. The court has only pretended so because it was funny. Asking who he is, if not the king, Louis is informed that he is foot servant to the second chamberlain. When he asks who is the king, he sees Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster) dressed in gender-ambiguous fashion.
Louis’ dream reveals his anxiety about his own legitimacy as king. He has not (yet) questioned in his waking life whether he is really the legitimate heir to the throne, but this dream clarifies his anxiety and sense of inadequacy in his own gender performance. As King, he should dominate, but does his mistress dominate him? If so, or if it is believed so, then who really is king? As of season 2, Louis is experiencing what is commonly referred to today as ‘imposter syndrome’.
In the fiction of season 3, however, Louis discovers that he, in a very real sense, actually is an imposter; albeit one put in his current position by the previous king — who was the legal husband to Louis’ biological mother. Louis learns, however, as a result of Philippe’s investigations, that he is not in fact Louis XIII’s biological son. Louis XIII and his wife are reported in the show as having had one son who died in infancy. After that, however, Louis XIII, unable to father another child, secretly engaged a servant from his and his wife’s immediate circle to impregnate the queen. Louis XIV and Philippe are the offspring of that union.
References to Greek Myth
In season 3, Louis discovers that his former lover M. de Montespan is the source of certain rumors plaguing the current object of his affection M. de Maintenon (Catherine Walker). Louis punishes M. de Montespan with exile to a convent. In reply to this sentence, Montespan declares that she now sees in Louis ‘the stone face of a tyrant’. She also reminds the King of the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Louis is of course the self-styled ‘Sun King’. To associate Louis with Icarus is to suggest that he is not the sun, but rather an impetuous child recklessly moving toward it with disastrous consequences in the offing. It is a brief moment, but M. de Montespan draws the King’s attention, perhaps unwittingly, to the accusation that he is not what he says he is.
M. de Maintenon, on the other hand, rejects Louis’ amorous advances, saying that he takes advantage of his station. This tests Louis’ sense of entitlement to the bodies of those around him — in effect, it tests his willingness to embrace being perceived as a tyrant by someone he currently cares for. Louis even says, speaking of their relationship, he sometimes ‘is not sure what his station is’. The theme of ‘know yourself’ runs in parallel in season 3 between the King crafting what his role in governance of France and within the walls of Versailles is to be like and, secretly, navigating revelations that he isn’t the person that he and everyone believe him to be.
A Latin Name
By episode 7 of season 3 classical allusions having given way to Biblical references (mark of Cain, etc.). Yet, the Man in the Iron Mask (Jean-Hughes Anglade) is introduced with a Latin name: Duc de Sullun. ‘Sullun’ is an anagram for the Latin word nullus, meaning ‘No One’. De Sullun is the symbolic equivalent of the character Agathe and the imagery of the Minotaur and Satan in season 2. De Sullun is the mysterious entity at the heart of a deadly labyrinth. Unlike Agathe, however, he is not malevolent. He embodies danger, he does not will it.
In response to Louis’ questions, de Sullun says, “It is not my name, but who I am that matters.” Louis replies, “Who are you?” de Sullun: “I am your father.” Afterwards, Louis and Cardinal Leto meet. Indeed, with the metal mask and the paternity theme, the Duc de Sullun resembles a strangely gentle Darth Vader. The Latin name fits the associations with Latin, both ancient Roman and medieval, that it had in season 1. Latin in both scenarios emerges in connection with secrecy, uncertainty, and the sense of lurking danger.
The Vatican, it is revealed, has known Louis’ secret the entire time. Its emissary Cardinal Leto, attempts to leverage this knowledge into power over the French throne. Louis now works to redefine the identification of his monarchical power vis-a-vis the Church (from S3E8): [Louis] “The Pope may be God’s representative on Earth but I am born of God.” [Leto] “But you and I both know that isn’t true.” [Louis] “I am who you see before me. I am Versailles. And I have all the power I need.” [Leto] “But not if the truth comes out.”
In spite of putting up that defiant front, Louis later asks a puzzled M. de Maintenon, “Do you know who you are?” [de Maintenon] “Of course, sire.” [Louis] “But how can you tell? How can you know it’s not just a fiction? An invention of those around you? What if everything you know is made up of lies, and you are not who you think you are, but who you’ve been told you are?” [de Maintenon] “Why are you thinking this way?” Her question pertains in particular to his manner of late. She adds, “You’re not yourself, Louis.” When a member of the Protestant community, loyal to Louis, brings leaflets that have been spread by Protestants in Paris attacking him, the King is uncharacteristically passive. He simply wonders if it’s true and leaves the room.
M. de Maintenon overtakes him outside and asks what’s wrong with him. Louis replies that she forgets that she is talking to her King, to which she says, “That man in there was not my King. What has happened to you? Where is the King who makes decisions? Where is the King who was building an empire? Where is the King born of God?” Maintenon’s question, “Where is the King born of God?” — the phrase is striking. The show develops it to suggest the perception, at least, that Louis is aspiring to godhood, perhaps becoming parallel to Jesus — whom his France also recognizes as being born of God. Perhaps we are mean to remember that Louis characterized the building of Versailles in season 1 as building a temple. The Greeks built temples to their gods. Versailles would be a temple to France and to God. Yet, Louis dwells in this temple. Is it ultimately a temple to him?
Leto threatens Louis with excommunication, plus exposing the truth about his father. “Louis the Great would be an outcast in the eyes of the world and God himself. You would not even exist. Versailles would collapse. Everything you have built would tumble to nothing.” He still remains outwardly defiant in the face of the Cardinal, but Louis is wracked with uncertainty.
Philippe announces (S3E8), “Our father sends you a message. He says he can answer your question.” Louis asks his father (rhetorically) what he is to do with him. Duc de Sullun replies, “Look into your heart. If you know who you really are, you will know what to do.” The camera cuts to a new scene in a 1st person shot, gazing through the mask at a mirror. It is Louis, not his father, looking through the mask. He pulls it off and throws it at the mirror, smashing it. Bontemps enters. Louis says, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” A distressed Bontemps replies, “You are my King.” Louis declares, “I’m nothing.” Bontemps interrupts him and reassures him with great — almost frantic — vehemence of his identity. Louis is relieved by Bontemps’ sincerity and faith in him. In a strangely calm, yet drastic measure, Louis takes Bontemps alone to a cliff, where he quite suddenly tests the divinity of his role. Louis jumps from the cliff into the river below. The jump from the height recalls the second temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:6). The tempter encourages Jesus to demonstrate his power by casting himself down, for angels will intervene to prevent harm from coming to him. Louis, in effect, tests God, which Jesus declines to do. Louis casts himself down, briefly losing consciousness under water. He awakes beneath the water. Arms reach out from below to grab him. They seem demonic — perhaps his victims? — meaning to pull him down. But he moves toward the surface just in time. Having survived, he takes the test as an affirmation of everything he wills himself to be.
Louis and Philippe share a final moment with their father. Accepting his fate with the contentment, perhaps, of helping his sons, de Sullun drinks poison at Louis’ direction. They bury their father in secret. Striking the theme of aspiration to divinity, Philippe says to Louis: “You’re treating your people with cruelty. All of us. You’re behaving like a god, but you’re not even a real king.” Louis replies, “I know exactly who I’ve become: A man chosen by God as his ruler.” In this fight between the royal brothers, it becomes clear that, where the living father threatens Louis’ identity as King, his death destroys that identity in the eyes of his brother. Yet Philippe ultimately sides with his living brother, despite the unnecessary (so he felt) loss of their father. In the season’s climactic conflict, Philippe saves Louis from an assassination attempt, after which he praises Louis’ strength and commends him for doing what he could not: doing the harsh, even unbearable things that an ordinary person cannot face.
At the series finale’s end, Louis meets briefly his own son and warns him of questions that will beset him: “Do I have the strength? Do I have the knowledge? Who am I?” Louis warns him, “Trust only in yourself above all others. Because you are the King. Chosen by God.”
The series down to its last minutes emphasizes the theme of identity, framing Louis’ answer to the question of ‘who am I?’ as ultimately bringing on revolution. The implication, brought to the fore by the attempted assassination of the King by members of an angry, oppressed group of Protestants (which has one the good will of Marchal), is that Louis’ embrace of his identity in the 17th century provokes the Revolution of 1789, which will result in the execution of his descendant Louis XVIII.