Bygone Days

Movie Title: LE ROI DANSE
Reviewed By: K.A. Corlett [Le Roi
Directed By: Gérard Corbiau
Genre: Historical Drama
Starring: Benoît Magimel
Date: 2000
Movie Title: Vatel
Reviewed By: K.A. Corlett [Vatel]
Directed By: Roland Joffé
Genre: Historical Drama/Romance
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Uma Thurman
Date: 2000
Price: $9.99

Le Roi Danse and Vatel: A Comparative Review

If you're in the mood for an evening of luscious period drama, allow me to suggest a couple of morsels that will have you licking your chops:Le Roi Danse and Vatel, both Louis XIV extravaganzas, and each tragic in its own way. One is the tragedy of an artist who lives only for his king, and the other is the tragedy of an artist who refuses to live for his king.

Le Roi Danse (The King is Dancing), directed by Gérard Corbiau, is a lush portrayal of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. We trace the evolution of Versailles from swamp to pleasure garden. The plot focuses on the relationship between the young king and his court composer Lully. Lully, played with mad intensity by Boris Terral, is an impassioned dancer, composer, and conductor who worships his sovereign as man, god, and muse. The film examines Louis XIV not as statesman but as consummate artist and obsessive visionary, who maintains his hold on his courtiers--allies and enemies alike--via the splendour of the world he has created at Versailles and his own self-affirming glory. Lully glorifies and inspires the king through his music, composing and choreographing endless pageants in which Louis is the centrepiece. Benoît Magimel is masterful as Louis, cool and tormented by turns without descending into melodrama. As he struggles to impose his will on a resistant court, Louis uses Lully and the playwright Molière as political tools. Indeed, the Buddhist tenet that attachment causes suffering rings true here, for Lully is utterly devoted to a man who, wholly concerned with the establishment and exercise of power, can have no friends. Molière is portrayed as pragmatist and realist, willing to produce the musical farce of which Louis is fond, but in the end it is the idealist Lully who compromises his musical integrity to win the favour of the King.

Le Roi Danse offers an interesting take on Louis XIV's l'état, c'est moi ethos, showing a young man who must battle at every turn to thrust off the gloom of his mother's frigid piety. Even on her deathbed she deplores him and all that he stands for, demanding self-renunciation. Her son refuses, and the tragedy is his cognizance that he has never had her approval or her love. Oppressed by his motherís reverence for God, he fashions himself God on earth, and Lully abets him.

If the movie has a fault, it perhaps assumes too much knowledge of French history on the part of the audience. References to Cardinal Mazarin and the names of Louis' famous sculptors and landscapers are tossed about with casual disregard. The transitions between some scenes are rather rough and sketchy; Le Roi Danse does no spoonfeeding. All the better for history buffs who want to chew the gristle.

In director Roland Joffé's Vatel, Gerard Depardieu plays the title character, François Vatel, steward of the Prince de Condé's household at Chantilly. It is 1671. War with the Netherlands looms, and Condé has invited Louis XIV to three days of festivities at Chantilly in the hopes of obtaining a generalship. Vatel oversees everything in the minutest detail, from menu to flowers to dramatis personae for the evenings' entertainments. On one hand he must fend off the amorous attentions of Louis XIV's notorious brother, Monsieur; on the other he must decide what to do about his feelings for the King's latest mistress, Anne de Montausier.

Vatel showcases court intrigue at its nastiest: a game where the stakes are body and soul. Tim Roth is deliciously repulsive as the Marquis de Lauzun, lurking like a spider to ensnare the hapless Anne. This film is grimly hilarious; its matter-of-fact portrayal of even the most inelegant moments (a scene where Louis XIV talks politics while a member of the household wipes his ass comes to mind) upholds the truism that there is never any privacy in a royal household. Caught in the maelstrom is Vatel, both 'orchestrator' (for the Prince would be helpless without him) and victim. A man of the lower class, loyal and trustworthy, he finds his master's royal guests morally repellent. When the bumbling Condé gambles Vatel and his services away in a card game, Vatel considers it the ultimate betrayal.

Images of Louis XIV

We get into Louis' head in Le Roi Danse; this does not really happen in Vatel, which offers a more removed perspective. In Le Roi de Danse we see Louis as a child and eventually as an adult; we see something of what must have gone into building the man behind the image. In Vatel we see the mature product only--sovereign and canny politician. Julian Sands portrays a more centered, poised, and cooler Louis XIV in Vatel. The natures of the stories are very different, and Benoît Magimel's passionate, tormented Louis is well suited to Le Roi Danse. In Vatel, the king is a remote and powerful being. Still, Le Roi Danse plays on the very same theme, for the king is both accessible and inaccessible to Lully--the artist might come near the sun, but can never truly touch. We trace the embitterment, the closing up of Louis as he must shoulder the responsibility of ruling Europe's most powerful nation and keep the opposing factions of his court under his thumb. In that, Magimel's Louis is more human and sympathetic. Sands' Louis charms us but does not draw our empathy, nor is he meant to.

Lully and Vatel

Lully is a man of extremes, passion, excess, ideals. His character is thus always teetering on a precipice. Vatel, on the other hand, is a more pedestrian artist. He knows himself and his limitations. He is more balanced, a realist. Like Lully, he is devoted to his master (Condé in Vatel's case), but when that devotion is betrayed, Vatel, unlike Lully, does not compromise himself further. Lully bends like a reed, but it eats at him. Vatel will not compromise, and he is master of his own destiny. He is steadfast, substantial, a true man of the people. Lully, at first, refuses to play the politics of court. However, once he has reached a certain point, he becomes positively Machiavellian, and goes on to betray Molière, his oldest friend.

In Le Roi Danse, Lully's devotion to the King is the death-knell of his artistic vision; he compromises to the point of no return. The King at first is an invigorating muse. Later in life, as Louis becomes more the prisoner of the court's constraints, Lully sacrifices his originality and principles. He cannot achieve inspiration but through the medium of the King, and to please his King he compromises his art. The idealist-turned-pragmatist loses his soul. In Vatel, the title character engineers spectacles the likes of which Versailles has never seen, and when the King commands his presence at the palace, his fierce sense of identity and integrity will not allow him to bow to his sovereign's will. Lully is an immigrant at the mercy of the King, a favourite, but his position is always precarious. Vatel is ever his own man, and will not place himself at the mercy of the King.

Intellectually, optically, aurally--no matter how you slice it, or how much French history you know, Le Roi Danse and Vatel are utterly mouth-watering.

And so, me dearies, curl up with a mango ice, chocolate-dipped strawberries, or some other decadent treat and settle in for an evening of comparative cinema. Don't say I didn't warn you if you're disinclined to ever return these videos to the store.

K.A. Corlett

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