An original creation by CANAL+, Marie Antoinette is a historical drama that charts the rise and fall of France’s ill-fated queen. Producer Stéphanie Chartreux of Banijay Studios France, Claude Chelli, Executive Producer, Capa DRAMA, and Claire Jago, Executive Vice President EMEA, Sales and Acquisitions at Banijay Rights, talk to us about how the series got off the ground and the fresh new perspective it offers on possibly the most famous French queen of all.

The Interview

French queen set to reign over international sales for CANAL+

Claude Chelli

UniFrance: Why did you choose to make a series out of Marie Antoinette’s life?

Claude Chelli, Capa DRAMA: Following the international success of Versailles, and its production across three seasons, Capa, Banijay and our partner, CANAL+, wanted to pursue the avenue of another big historical drama. The idea of Marie Antoinette emerged almost immediately. A free spirit, a feminist before her time, and a fashion icon, for us she was the stand-out character to be the centre of a new series. The show’s creator, Deborah Davis, (writer of the award-winning film The Favorite) describes her just right: “A 21st century girl entering a perverse and incestuous eighteenth-century world”.

UniFrance: As – probably – the most famous French queen in history, she has already been subjected to numerous adaptations. What differentiates this fiction from previous versions?

Stéphanie Chartreux

Stéphanie Chartreux, Banijay Studios France: Telling Marie Antoinette’s story has of course a special resonance today. She has often been portrayed as a frivolous, selfish, and spoiled young woman. But we absolutely wanted to show a new, different point of view and explore the complex character and psyche that most of us don’t really know.
Deborah Davis was the obvious choice to bring her impertinence, daring and modern vision to life – and embraced a whole new approach. Deborah has chosen to put the audience into Marie Antoinette’s intimacy. We travel deep inside her head throughout the first season. We’re not only discovering the historical figure; we also get to know the woman behind it all.

Deborah imagined the show for three seasons. The first one is divided into two parts: Marie Antoinette as Dauphine and then later as Queen of France. The time frame spans ten years and begins when she’s leaving her country as a 15-year-old. It’s truly a modern coming-of-age story. Marie Antoinette is a series of contrasts between past and present, drama and reality – and is always mixing comedy and tragedy.

UniFrance: Some considered Marie Antoinette to be a feminist icon. How did you deal with this side of her personality?

Stéphanie Chartreux: The Ancien Regime was an extremely patriarchal world, and at that time a woman’s life was governed by a man’s decisions. Whatever their age or their social status, women often had to submit to their father, brother or husband. Instead of being forced to conform, Marie Antoinette tried to build her life differently. She claimed what we now might call the ‘right to privacy’. She tried to break up the etiquette and instead invent her own rules, and never ceased to emancipate herself and turn Versailles upside down to reflect her own values.

What certainly makes her a feminist icon is her strength of character. When she arrived in Versailles, she faced masked enemies from the court – but especially from those within the heart of the French royal family, who were lining up to annihilate her. She had to prove her strength at a very early age! Moreover, we need to remember that Marie Antoinette was at first a political instrument used to fortify the French-Austrian alliance. She was only 15 years old when her mother asked to leave her country and family. And she was mainly sent to give an heir to the throne of France. Her female body was essentially treated as a mere commodity.

UniFrance: This novel take on the queen’s life does sound promising! Quite a team is gathered around it…

Claude Chelli: The first obstacle we faced when we started to put together the writing team was to imagine a very different Marie Antoinette comped to the one featured in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 movie.

At the time The Favorite (2018) was released, we knew Deborah Davis was the right person to lead the show… so we chased her, and were very lucky that she accepted immediately, on the basis that Marie Antoinette was one of her favorite characters. Soon after, we started searching for additional writers in England to help her write all eight episodes. And then Louise Ironside and Chloe Moss joined the team.

Stéphanie Chartreux: We knew from the outset that costumes and sets would be essential elements to this period drama. And we had the chance to work with exceptional talent.

Madeline Fontaine (winner of three César and one BAFTA for best costumes, plus has garnered an Oscar nomination) is the artistic director of the costume department. She was immediately thrilled to meet the challenge of telling the evolution of the main character through her creations. Marie Antoinette arrives as a very young girl in a very strict court and, within a few years, becomes the fashion icon of her time. It was therefore very important to see through her look, and how she managed to launch new trends and new codes which were more modern. Madeline has made her own interpretation of the costumes at this time and chose to use a variety of colours and materials to assemble them, so that each piece from the costume department is a pure creation made entirely for the show and our story.

We are fortunate to have access to exceptional 18th century interior sets: Château Champlatreux, Champs sur Marne, Vaux le Vicomte, without forgetting of course Versailles and Le Petit Trianon. Pierre Quefféléan (a Cesar winner for Best Sets) and his team also designed and built some of the Royal apartments of Versailles in the studio. These were extremely important as they helped us to really understand Marie Antoinette’s life. The etiquette established by Louis XIV required that the life of the King and Queen had to happen in public. They each had a public apartment dedicated to all the public ceremonies, and a private apartment which was much smaller where they actually lived. With this show, we open the secret doors behind the tapestries of the public bedrooms to reveal the private life of a King and Queen of France. 

Claude Chelli: It was quite a challenge because Marie Antoinette arrives at Versailles aged 15 and by the end of season one, she’s 25! So, we had to find an actress who could be believable at both ends of the season… When we saw Emilia Schule, we immediately knew that we’d found her. It was the same challenge for the rest of the cast.

UniFrance: Marie Antoinette is one of many French queens. What do you think make her so internationally attractive?

Claude Chelli: Marie Antoinette stands out as a prominent historical character – the most famous Queen of France. However, while of course her destiny was tragic, there were many other women in France – and across the world – who had equally tragic lives. Is she internationally attractive simply because she was almost 15 when she arrived at Versailles? Perhaps. But more importantly for me, the most important point is that she challenged things. Until her appearance, there were no ‘queens’ in France – there were simply Kings’ wives with no power and no woman was allowed to rule except when the new king was too young. Marie Antoinette did not accept this fate, and she turned Versailles upside down, carving her own world in her own private apartments. She embodies our views of emancipation and personal freedom – but with that comes lots of enemies lurking in the dark.

UniFrance: And how did international buyers respond? 

Claire Jago

 Claire Jago: The response for this remarkable CANAL+ Creation Original series has so far been fantastic, particularly after MIPCOM and the autumn period. Rest assured there will be more news to share on this soon. There are plenty of signs of interest worldwide, and that’s unsurprising when you’re telling a story of an incredibly modern, avant-garde queen – there’s so much in this series that is relevant to today’s society. All of this has been driven by an incredibly talented writer – Deborah Davis – and production team, both of which are a huge selling point for the series.

UniFrance: And BBC Two became the first international buyer! 

 Claire Jago: Obviously, we were delighted that BBC Two in the UK pre-bought the drama – it was a fabulous deal struck by Chris Stewart, SVP Sales, UK & Eire, in our team. Following on from the success of Versailles on BBC Two, we are in no doubt this series will resonate well with British viewers, and of course those watching from further afield too. The show will also feature on the BBC’s iPlayer, which will help increase viewership massively.