Since learning about France’s royal and revolutionary history, I’ve wanted to visit the Chateau de Versailles, the home of kings, to see if it lived up to its opulent reputation. My interest was further piqued after seeing Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, part of which was shot inside the palace.
I am probably in the minority of people who loved the bright colours, the wild clothes and completely out-of-place soundtrack, but it’s more of a fairy tale than history lesson. All the same, I found myself with an even deeper appreciation for Coppola’s film and accomplishment and a better understanding of the strange, complicated world of the Queen herself after visiting the grounds.
If you’ve been, you know, Versailles exceeds its reputation for excess. Approaching Versailles from the street, it’s relatively easy to leap back in time and imagine the daunting approach. Except for all of the tour buses, of course.
The Main Chateau
The Main Chateau is overwhelming. Every surface is adorned or covered in gold, and wandering through the many chambers and drawing rooms, you can see how the building inspired Marie Antoinette and its visual appeal. Simply put, at Versailles, there is no such thing as too much.
Moving through the Hall of Mirrors with a large number of tourists isn’t the best way to imagine life in the courts of Louis XV and Louis XVI that form the timeline of the movie. That said, it was almost as remarkable (to me, anyway), the film managed to secure the hall for a scene which, in all likelihood, played out in real life (in some form) more than 200 years ago.
One of the more absurd facets of life depicted in the movie, was the daily presence of scores of people in the Queen’s bedroom, all of whom had a role to play. Like young Marie Antoinette, arriving as the Dauphine-to-be, I marveled at the sumptuous fabrics and surprisingly small beds.
Le Petit Trianon
The first act of the film ends with Marie Antoinette receiving the keys to Le Petit Trianon as a gift from her husband.
Much like in the movie, I found the grounds of Le Petit Trianon a peaceful refuge from the overstimulation of the main Chateau. In the autumn, the grounds are quiet and the colours muted, as the leaves change colour and fall away. This part of the grounds was home to some of the happier times of Marie Antoinette’s life at Versailles. The Queen’s Theatre was built on the site of a former greenhouse, and was used by the Queen to stage plays for the amusement of the court. The theatre is deceptively small, with just a few rows of seats, suitable for an audience of the King and her friends.
During my autumn visit, the grounds weren’t quite as sunny and warm as the time depicted in the movie, the gardens ready for their winter rest, with the year’s blooms long gone.
My favourite spot on the grounds of Le Petit Trianon was the Temple of Love. Better known historically as the site of some rocking parties (and probably a few romantic interludes), the Temple is in the background while the Queen wanders the grounds in despair.
Le Hameau, or the Queen’s Hamlet, was where Marie Antoinette went to get away from it all after getting away from it all at le Petit Trianon (which was her retreat from the Chateau). Having one’s own peasant village was very much in fashion during Marie Antoinette’s time. Le Hameau gave the Queen the relative freedom to live a simpler life, by running her own small farm. She was, in fact, known to little manual labour, but largely left the real farm work to the staff.
Marie Antoinette is by no means a complete account of Marie Antoinette’s life or meant as a travelogue for visiting the Chateau de Versailles. I found the film gave me a greater appreciation for the craziness of life during that time, where the weight of obligation was often met with sheer volume of beautiful things.
Have you visited Versailles or another sumptuous estate used in a movie? How did it stand up to your expectations?