Interview with Christine Le Goff, Producer and Chloé Persyn-Preljocaj, Head of Sales and Acquisitions at ZED, about The Secret Versailles of Marie-Antoinette, which has been nominated for an Export Awards 2021 in the documentary category. 

The Interview

TV France: How did this docu-drama about the life of Marie-Antoinette at Versailles get started? 

Christine Le Goff

Christine Le Goff: While we were working on our previous film, 1715: The Sun King is dead!, the director and I met one of the curators of the palace gardens. During an informal discussion, he told us about the upcoming restoration of the Queen’s Hamlet. Obviously, we immediately told the teams at Versailles that this was of interest to us! 1715: The Sun King is dead! was a perfect shoot, and the film was very well received by the curators of the museum. Securing exclusivity to the hamlet restoration seemed only natural.

We met with Jacques Moulin, the architect spearheading the restoration, and that meeting went very well. We wrote the project for ARTE’s Culture Unit, who wanted a film based on the same format as the docu-drama that I co-produced and co-directed about the rise of first department stores in the XIXth century (Birth of Shopping). ARTE commissioner wanted a docu-drama that was above all about the decorative aspects of Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet, but also about the life and evolution of the Queen during the time she spent at Versailles. ARTE was enthusiastic and accepted a 90-minute prime time film. That’s how it all began!

TV France: Filming lasted a whole year, didn’t it?

Christine Le Goff: Actually, filming took more than 18 months! That was the time it took to complete the restoration work. It was originally only supposed to last 8 months, but it was subject to numerous delays, as often the case with old monuments!

Since the film was based on Marie-Antoinette’s life, our concept was to use the different stages of the restoration work as a through-line for the film : so we filmed the Hamlet in its state of disrepair before work began, the initial deconstruction, and the main restoration steps outside and inside. We also filmed the gestures of the artisans who gilded the furniture, wove the wall hangings, restored the wallpaper, and sculpted lost wooden elements. Outside, we filmed the thatched roof being installed, the fake daubing, everything that showed to what extent the Hamlet was like a theater set: a fake paradise completely removed from reality.   

We also followed the work of Versailles gardeners who recreated the different garden patches around each hut: the Hamlet can’t be understood of appreciated without its natural. An extraordinary natural décor that was too created from scratch.

And then, the final touch:  The Hamlet was decorated and re-furnished in the most exquisite style.  Our film actually ends with the rather touching vision of a ghostly Queen rediscovering the place that she created and loved so dearly, but where she actually got to spend very little time before the revolution ended her life.

TV France: What do you remember most about the film shoot?

Christine Le Goff: The beauty of the place. The total trust we had from the teams at Versailles, who let us work freely within a framework of their specific rules for shooting, that we followed to the letter. Having the Hamlet gardens just for us day after day was an immense pleasure. 

There was also a certain time pressure to manage the drama part of the film. Like the Hamlet restoration, we had our share of unexpected events.  There was a huge storm one day, and our actors – all in wigs and full costume – found themselves perched up on ladders under enormous umbrellas waiting for hours for the deluge to pass.  

I also remember well our first production day.  It was a misty and foggy dawn. After a moment of surprise, we shot sublime and mysterious drone shots of Versailles castle and its gardens. I think that day the whole team felt the magic of the place, despite the cold and damp weather. They are among my favorite images of the film.

Lastly, there was the day we filmed our actress in the Hall of Mirrors. It was totally empty. Versailles belonged to us! That was a very special moment.

TV France: Why did you choose to look at the figure of Marie-Antoinette in such an intimate way?

Christine Le Goff: It’s impossible to understand Queen’s Hamlet creation without knowing the story of Marie-Antoinette right from her arrival at Versailles as a young girl. The Hamlet is an architectural manifestation of the surreal life the Queen lived there but also the expression of her love/hate relationship with the grand Palace and court etiquette. This became evident to us after we spoke to the Versailles curators and the restoration experts. Their views were so fascinating that we included in the film the historical research they conducted in order to undertake the restoration work.  

It was also important to show lesser known aspects of Marie-Antoinette’s personality: her love for visual arts and music, her passion for architecture and decoration. She completely transformed Versailles despite her youth and the fact that she was a woman!

TV France: The result is a documentary with a particularly rare aesthetic value.

Christine Le Goff: Even if part of the film is drama, we are first and foremost documentary makers. So, we worked hard on the realism of the costumes and the wigs, which evolve over the course of the film as Marie-Antoinette ages – as was the case in reality: fashion changed rapidly then as it does now… The same is true for all the props. For the card game scene, we went to the Playing Card Museum in the town of  Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris to find the exact cards that would have been used in the 18th century. While drama allowed us to convey emotion, create a dynamic story, and add a touch of poetry, it was essential that we stay true to historical detail. The curators and historians at Versailles worked with us to oversee all our choices.  

Even though this film is a documentary, we wanted it to be ambitious and beautiful. Our director therefore made some strong choices – almost theatrical ones in fact – in order to create a distinctive visual space despite budget restrictions. These theatrical choices went perfectly with the Hamlet since it is itself a theater set! So our financial limitations became a visual strength. 

TV France: You had a number of exceptional partners working with you on the documentary.

Christine Le Goff: The Chateau de Versailles was an essential partner. Not just to ensure we got permission to film, but also because their teams truly worked with us – giving us special access to various places, offering us the expertise of their curators, and keeping us abreast of every detail of the restoration work.  

Chloé Persyn-Preljocaj

Chloé Persyn-Preljocaj, Head of Sales & Acquisitions (ZED):

And lots of partners came on board as work progressed. From Germany, Japan, the USA, and New Zealand to the Middle East, Italy and Scandinavia, the film has sold all over the world and been shown by more than 25 broadcasters globally! These include ARTE, HISTOIRE TV, NHK, ZDF, SERVUS TV, RAI, RTVE, SBS, OVATION, RTBF, VIASAT, TV5 Québec, TV5 Monde, MBC-Al Arabiya HRT, and RTVS to name but a few! It is a truly international hit!

7- How do you explain its international success?

Chloé Persyn-Preljocaj, Head of Sales & Acquisitions (ZED):

Marie-Antoinette is the most famous of all the French queens, and she is known the world over. Versailles is a unique place that fascinates people from all over the world, and Marie-Antoinette is an international icon (in Japan, for example, she is the heroine of a manga series, and is very often the subject of exhibitions). Add to that the quality of this docu-drama and you have all the ingredients necessary to make the film an international smash.

8- So, Versailles, Marie-Antoinette, and the Queen’s Hamlet are a winning trio?

Chloé Persyn-Preljocaj, Head of Sales & Acquisitions (ZED):

By both its subject and its form, The Secret Versailles of Marie-Antoinette is a heritage film, and it is also timeless. And even though it has already been a huge worldwide success, we believe that it will continue to sell for a long time yet.