Princess power? That's fine in Disney dreams, shaky in Versailles


It's time to jump back into the world of Versailles, which has beautiful people in beautiful places ... doing rather ugly things. The series starts its second season at 10 p.m. ET Saturday (Sept. 30) on DirecTV and AT&T U-verse; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Fueled by Disney
dreams, the world has plenty of people who want to be European
princesses.

They might
reconsider, after talking to the actresses in cable's lush
“Versailles” series.

“The women at
court spent a lot of their time getting dressed and undressed and
re-dressed,” said Elisa Lasowski, who plays Marie Therese, the
French queen married to Louis XIV.

And in their spare
time, they schemed. There was a lot of that, producer Aude Albano
feels.

“Louis XIV was a
womanizer,” she said. But “he would surround himself with
strong-willed, smart, witty women. His mother was, his wife was, his
mistresses were.”

But they were
cautious, Lasowski said. “It was very repressive. There was only so
much you could do.”

This was an
artificial world, created by a king who made love and war, but also
had an eye for the arts. “He had a great sense for culture, a love
of music and ballet,” said Anna Brewster, who plays his mistress,
Madame Montespan. “He had a great sense visually.”

His name lingers
everywhere, they point out, from furniture to the name “Louisiana.”
And Versailles itself persists. Louis took a former hunting lodge, 12
miles from Paris, and expanded it to 721,000 square feet, filled with
grand touches and powerful people, not all of them happy to be there.

It “was a way to
control them,” Lasowski said. “He sort of moved everyone away
from Paris (to) a Las Vegas or whatever. It was a palace of pleasure,
gambling, and a prison at the same time. That was a way he could sort
of control his opposition.”

That stirred the
scheming. These were “young souls, excited by power,” said
Suzanne Clement.

She plays Madame
Agathe, who had potions and poisons. The character is fictional, but
the situation is not: The real Versailles was rocked by poisonings;
in a five-year stretch, they led to 36 executions.

This was a notorious
era, Brewster said, dubbed “'The Affair of the Poisons.' Nowadays,
it would sound so far-fetched.”

Her own character,
the mistress, fit that mood. “She was famous fo her temper,”
Brewster said.

She also was the
king's favorite and had seven of his children. As this season begins,
Albano said, “she has it all. She has love with the king; she has
power. She is the envy of everybody at court. But behind that
strength ... is a vulnerable woman, madly in love and terrified she
might lose the love.”

By the end of the
season's first episode, the poisonings have begun. Early in the
second, we meet an important new force, Elisabeth Charlotte. She was
German and aristocratic, known as Princess Palatine; for political
reasons, she married Philippe, the king's brother, who was widowed
and gay.

This is a meaty role
for Jessica Clark, who expected to spend much of her life in theater.
Her father was a theater photographer and she was in a London show
when someone asked her to audition for Palatine.

“I got onto Google
to catch up on as much history as I could,” she said.

There happens to be
a mountain of it. “She had these letters that she wrote that are a
really amazing documentation of history,” Clark said. “In these
letters, you can see this incredible, ferocious, brilliant woman who
really didn't really want to hold back.”

So she didn't. On a
frigid morning, Clark found herself encased in a huge, blonde wig --
“this doesn't look anything like me, which is helpful” -- and
filming the moment she meets Philippe.

He is crossing a
bridge and she is ... well, urinating. That never seems to happen to
Disney princesses.

-- “Versailles,”
10 p.m. ET Saturdays, Ovation.

-- Season-opener
(Sept. 30) starts the poisonings; it reruns at 2:30 a.m. ET. The
second episode (Oct. 7) introduces Philippe's new wife; then the
first two episodes rerun at 3 and 4 a.m. ET..

-- Ovation is an
arts-oriented channel on DirecTV, AT&T U-verse, Verizon and some
cable channels.