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Vatel: Versailles and the Individual

The 17th century is Hollywood's forgotten century. Whilst productions set in the Tudor era, or the Georgian era or even the Victorian, are aplenty, for some elusive reason, there aren't many that tackle the period between 1620 and 1700 (and the great majority of these rare movies are adaptations of the Three Musketeers).

On the other hand, when you turn your head towards the European panorama, you will find quite a larger number of movies set in the Baroque Period. One of these movies, and one of the most well-known (if only because it's shot in English instead of French or Spanish), is Vatel.


Vatel (2000) is a period drama directed by Roland Joffé, the acclaimed British director of The Killing Fields (1984), The Mission (1986) and The Scarlett Letter (1996), amongst others. The movie tells the real, yet highly dramatized, story of François Vatel, and it premiered in the Official Selection of the Cannes Festival, gaining quite a lot of critical acclaim.

The costumes for this lavish story were designed by Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle. The work of this French costume designer has mainly focussed around the landscape of European Theater, and her work in Vatel is one of her few incursions in the cinematic landscape, which makes her work in it even more praiseworthy.

WHAT'S THE STORY?

It's 1671, war is brewing with Holland, and Louis XIV rules over France. The Prince de Condé, ruined and out of favor in his majesty's court, invites the King and the court to spend three days at Chantilly. His master of ceremonies, François Vatel, a man of honor, talent and low birth, will put up for them three days of glorious and extravagant festivities in order to impress the King and secure a commission as general for the Prince in the war to come. In the course of these three days, power and politics will interlace tmeselfes with personal interests and desires in a court where everyone has a price.

A BRIEF NOTE

Vatel is, above all, a period piece, and therefore it's impossible to not talk about the historical side of the designs. Especially considering the period in which it's set. The 17th century is not only heavily omitted by the Hollywood industry; in the few occasions in which they dabble in it, they tend to completely overlook the true historical fashion of the period almost systematically.

Here they dressed the musketeers in Tudor
fashion, apparently it's sexier

This is due to the fact that the 17th century fashion is, probably, the weirdest and most extravagant in history, both for woman and men; big shapes, loud colors, bombastic styles... 17th century fashion was all about showing off. And because of this, many producers are of the opinion that modern audiences will not be able to take the story seriously if they show their characters dressed in the correct historical fashion (something which I have already ranted about extensively in the past, and therefore will now restrain to comment on it).

Because of this tendency to avoid 17th century fashion, it's actually very refreshing when you find a movie that it's genuinely trying to achieve a semblance of historical accuracy. And Vatel is one of those rare cases.


It's true that, even then, the designs take certain liberties to support the narrative, sure. But still, I find myself easily forgiving those when everything else is done with so much care and research.

A WORLD DIVIDED

Vatel is, behind all the fabulous layers of silk and velvet, a story that talks about the individual and free will in a world where everyone is keenly aware of their place and the need to stay in it. It's talking about a world divided into two groups: those who have (the King and Court), and those who don't (the working classes).

And these two ideas are the central guidelines that dictate the visual design for this movie. That division is created mainly through the costume design, by establishing very clear looks for both groups, the movie manages to create a constant visual clash between the two. And that is, actually, the most interesting aspect of the movie. That and the splendorous recreation of 17th century Court Festivities.

VATEL AND THE WORKING CLASSES

François Vatel is a man of low birth, a simple man with an incredible eye for beauty. He might not have money, or titles, or lands, but he holds his dignity sacred as the only thing he cannot allow himself to lose. When we meet him, we find that he has succeeded in life quite a bit (as much as a peasant-born man could back then); he is the master of ceremonies at Chantilly, the household of the Prince de Condé.

The fact that the filmmaker chose to tell this story about the extravaganza and excess of the Versailles' Court through the eyes of someone of low social status is very telling about the ideology of the movie itself. And it also helps a modern audience (most of whom will feel very distant from the pomp and wealth of Versailles) to identify with our intended protagonist. We, like Vatel, have to work in order to make a living, and generally, we do not enter in contact with the "privileged" people, we only gaze at them from a distance. It's because of this, that Vatel is the perfect protagonist for the story: he doesn't only serve as the representative of the working classes for the audience, he also serves as the audience's avatar in the story.

But for all these to actually work, the movie needs to quickly convey all this through visuals, which they do mainly through set decoration and costume design. For instance, look at the picture below. This is the first frame in which he appears.


He is presented dressed in a very simple and humble manner: plain black breeches, simple black stockings and comfortable shoes, a white, basic white chemise, a black waistcoat and a black jacket. All of these point to a very simple idea: he is a working man, so he can't dress fashionably, because there's no room for that in the life of a hard working man. All the fashionable clothes would get in the way.

Another very important element, although not very noticeable in these pictures (it was really hard finding good quality pictures for this movie), is the incredible textures for his costume. The designer not only chose to use really basic and simple fabrics (the kind that a servant would be able to afford), he also worn them out so as to accentuate the feeling that he doesn't have a wardrobe that big, and that he probably uses the same outfit almost every day.


This is also supported by the fact that he sticks to the same outfit throughout the movie.  Despite this, if you take a closer look, you'll see that the designer actually differentiated the times when Vatel has to interact with the Prince of the Court and when he is working with his people by adding or subtracting parts of that outfit. When he has to appear in front of the Court (picture above) he is shown wearing his full costume,. But when he is down in the kitchens, in his own world, he is usually seen without the waistcoat, and sometimes also without the jacket.


Such a breach of etiquette would be unacceptable even for a Master of Ceremonies (despite the fact that he would still be considered a servant), but this is done in order to help accentuate the fact that he is a man that gets down to work without a problem.

Another relevant element to point out is the fact that he never wears a wig. Wigs were all the rage at Versailles, so not wearing one would be a real indication of low birth. So this is clearly a costume design decision, and it's a very clever one, since it helps to differentiate him from the ocean of wigs that we see throughout the movie.

All these little elements are essential in visually understanding this character and his priorities in life: he is a man of humble beginnings, he doesn't care about appearances and he puts an immense devotion and care into his work (which is all the care he doesn't put on his clothes).

But the real challenge of his costume design was that not only it needed to reflect the character, it also needed to be applicable for the rest of the servants and working classes in the movie so that the audience would identify certain colors, textures and types of dress as pertaining to a same social group. This means that all of the servants of the Chateau are dressed following a very similar pattern; simple and austere black clothing.


It would be simplistic, an erroneous, to speculate that this design was chosen only for its simplicity. For in movies, nothing really works on its own. Everything is conceptualized and designed in relation to what's going to be in contact with. And if we want to create a contrast between two worlds (in this case the court and the servants), we need to design said two worlds as contrasting as possible. So that, when you place the black-uniformed servants next to the colorful courtiers, your audience can quickly tell them apart only by their looks and recognize what each stands for.


Because of this, the designer worked heavily with color and color coding in order to tell a truly visual story. And so, the world of Vatel and the servants is associated with black, browns, greens... very organic and natural colors. With muted colors and natural textures that are not aggressive to the eye. That's because their world is the natural world, where things are exactly what they seem, and there's no need to conceal anything.


This poses a radical contrast with the decadent and over the top world of the courtiers, and helps the narrative by giving a voice to both worlds, by giving them a clear personality (and look) for the audience to latch on.

THE KING AND HIS COURT

The court is a world of appearances, where fashion, power, and desire interweave and feed off each other. It's the celebration of wealth (and its waste). It's the complete opposite of the world of the working class. And because of this, it's also it's complete opposite visually. The court is represented as an amalgamation of vivacious and lush colors; vibrant reds, vibrant oranges, vibrant purples, vibrant blues... any imaginable color in its most vivid and aggressive form.


And whilst the world of the servants consists of wools and cheap fabrics, the court is filled to the brim with silks and velvets and fine brocaded fabrics. The French Baroque Age is one of excess and decadence; a celebration of extravaganza. And so, the designs translate this lush approach to life into the court's costumes. Every single noble and courtier is dressed from head to toe in the finest and brightest silks and is shown wearing the biggest most extravagant wig possible.

These costumes ultimate function is to be an indicative of the power held by the wearer: the brighter the colors, the richer the fabrics, and the larger the wig, the more powerful is whomever is wearing them.


It's actually beyond remarkable the extensive and exhaustive work done in finding the right materials for these designs. Most costume designs for this century fail at the fabrics used, for they need to be so lush and fine that they tend to cause the whole department to go over budget. In order to correctly dress a 17th century courtier you need the finest satins, brocaded silks, velvets, brooches, veils, jewelry, silk stockings... which can be expensive. But it can truly be said that this production spared no expenses. And it truly shows.

Visually, the court is bedazzling in their wealth, which is essential to the story, because their presence needs to be impressive and ridiculous to the audience at the same time. So you see, the costs of such historically accurate designs were necessary.


But the court is nothing without a king. And so, the Sun King stands gloriously at the center of all this display of wealth and power. And he certainly poses a striking presence (which is mainly created through the profoundly accurate costume design).


There is no other character in this movie that is as heavily color coded as Louis the XIV.  Through his designs, we are made to associate the deep, vibrant red of his costume with his persona. The red silks he wears are more than vibrant; the vivid red hues are almost violent in their intensity. Because of this, the monarch is established as a dangerous presence. Someone that controls the fate of every single soul around him, and can turn on every and each one of them on a whim.

On a more metaphorical level, the King is dressed in red as if the blood spilled for his pleasure (the worker that dies at the second day spectacle or the farmers that starve to death whilst he decides whether to pay them or not) is actually covering him as an ominous coat. He is the hunter, and everyone else is his preys.


Another very nice detail is the fact that the closer a courtier is to the king, the more red he/she wears. It's a very effective visual idea, which helps the audience to quickly understand relations that would otherwise need of an unending voice-over to fully tell.


Also, the fact that there are always red elements in the frame whenever the court is involved, (like the sun parasols in the picture below) creates the feeling that the King is always present, even when he is not. He is almost like an omnipresent god.


The other essential character within the court is Anne de Montausier, beautifully played by Uma Thurman. She is new to court and, therefore, still has a soul to lose. This is very clearly reflected on the designs throughout the movie.


Most of her dresses, while keeping in line with the color palette established for the court (reds, blues, violets, yellows... etc.) use more pastel tonalities that the rest of the courtiers. This helps create an aura of innocence and delicacy around her that sets her apart.

This angelic look is very much highlighted by the use of semi translucent veils created with very thin and weightless fabrics so that they float around her when she moves.


I particularly enjoy the use of color (in relation to her character) in this frame below:


She is, literally, the only one not wearing red on the table, which doesn't only make her stand out a lot, it also highlights her as different to the rest (which she later will prove to be through her kindness towards Vatel).

It won't be until she beds the King, succumbing to the pressures of the Court, that she will start wearing more bold and aggressive colors (particularly red).


And after she sleeps with Vatel (which is when she realizes she doesn't want to follow the cruel rules the Court inflicts upon their members), she goes back to the soft, pastel colors that suit her so much better. Simple strategy, but effective.


But we certainly cannot look at her dresses without addressing the elephant in the room. Despite the exhaustive historical details that these designs have, there is one element that is glaringly not period accurate. And that is Anne's and all the female designs for the courtiers.

Ladies of the French Court, 1670's

This picture above it's the perfect showcase for the fashion of the French court between the 1670 and 1673. But this, certainly, is not what the courtiers in the movie wear.


The outfits in the movie are certainly something else, and are as detailed and luxurious as those of their male counterparts. But, simply put, they are not wearing 1670's French Fashion. But we don't need to look very far to see where the inspiration for the designs came for. We simply need to look across the channel into the newly restored English court.

Ladies of the English Court, 1670's

The fashion of the Restoration Period (particularly during Charles II's reign, which covers from 1660 to 1685) it's the direct reaction to the prior Puritan regime, and therefore basks in the feeling of looslesness, relaxation and pleasure (all hated by the Puritans). This translates into very loose fitting dresses that fall of the shoulder and a certain disheveled look, as if they just rolled out of bed.

It's certainly a look that transpires sexuality and femininity. Probably the two most hated terms in the puritan book. So, when looking at them, it actually becomes quite clear why the designer would chose to follow English fashion instead of French, even if it meant being inaccurate.

Visually, the Restoration Fashion is more direct. If, as a designer, you wanted to transmit to the audience that seduction and sex were the currency of the court ladies, that they abandon themselves to pleasure, then the English loose and relaxed gowns would do that more easily than the stiff and constricting gowns of the French fashion.

So, yes, it's a huge historical inaccuracy, but it certainly gets the job done; from a narrative stand point.

To wrap it up, briefly mention the Queen's design, which is done with a keen eye to detail. The wife of Louis XIV was Maria Therese of Spain, and it's a really nice detail that the designers chose to style her hair under the Spanish fashion (or at least inspired by it).


This is something that might go unnoticed by most viewers, but it helps create the feeling that she is somehow foreign to the court, and that she had little power or influence over her husband's court.

CONCLUSION

Vatel is a superbly luxurious and lush representation of the France of Louis XIV and a really good introduction to the Baroque sense of fashion (and extravaganza) to the uninitiated. And that is thanks to the marvelous costume design and their eye for detail and luxury.

As a whole, it might not be the best movie around (not even the best by this director), but it certainly won't waste your time. It's an interesting story, with well-played characters and beautiful costumes. So I definitely recommend it.


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