He styles himself the Sun King. But even Louis XIV knows the comparisons only go so far.
Sure, he’d like to think that he’s done his bit to bathe France in his regal light and warmth. And yes, he believes his country needs him just as much as the sun. Under his reign, France has become Europe’s mightiest nation: Wars have been won. Business has been good. The crops, more or less, keep growing as they should.
But the sun is as reliable as, well, itself. You never worry if it’s going to be around the next morning. It’s been rising and setting for all recorded history, and it’ll be rising and setting long after everyone in France is dead.
And there’s the rub.
Louis has been on the throne now for 41 years. That’s a pretty long time in an age where the average person lives to just 43. If his own sun sets, what’ll happen to France? He needs to stick around to make sure his empire does, too. The Sun King wants to become more like the sun itself: eternal.
Admittedly, eternal life is a pretty big ask—even for an almost all-powerful king. But Louis’ doctor has a plan: All they’ll need is a mermaid. If they can find one, keep it alive and drag it back to the king’s palace at Versailles, the doc can sacrifice it during a solar eclipse and, poof! Louis will become immortal.
But Louis is bringing another guest to Versailles: Marie-Josephe, a young musician who was raised in a convent from before she could pluck a violin string. She’s not nunnish material: In fact, the nuns have had it up to their funny hats with her sass. The fact that she goes swimming every time the sisters’ backs are turned—in clear violation of God’s natural order, the abbess believes—is particularly vexing. It’s high time she goes home; time to meet her father.
Marie-Josephe doesn’t know it yet, but her father is Louis XIV himself. He’s never met her. But now, as his reign wears on, Louis has an urge to spend some time with his daughter.
And if the whole mermaid thing works, he’ll have all the time in the world.
Being a king—especially a king like Louis XIV—doesn’t do much for one’s humility. But give Louis credit: His desire to be immortal seems to largely stem from his care for the country. He’s not an evil man, even if he does seem to think a little too much of (and a little too much about) himself.
His daughter, Marie-Josephe, is just what the guy needs. Having been raised in a convent, she’s not been corrupted by the glamor and intrigue of Versailles. She has a big heart, too: When Marie-Josephe meets the mermaid (which is successfully brought to France), she discovers the creature has healing powers, and she initially believes that Louis brought the mermaid to France to heal everyone in the country. (Which, indeed, would’ve been a very nice thing to do.)
But Marie-Josephe is deeply concerned with the mermaid’s well-being, too. She’s the first to intuit that the creature thinks and feels, just the same as we humans do—and that means the mermaid has a soul. Killing her wouldn’t be just like slaughtering a cow or something; it’d be murder. And Marie-Josephe will go to significant, life-saving lengths to keep anyone from murdering her new best friend.
We should also mention here the king’s personal priest, Pere La Chaise. Only two people have Louis’ ear: La Chaise and his doctor, Yves De La Croix. And while De La Croix is filled with some really terrible advice, La Chaise does his best to serve as the king’s conscience, steering Louis’ body and soul in more positive directions. And speaking of the king’s soul …
La Chaise believes this whole mermaid adventure puts that soul at significant risk.
“The only thing God gives you as immortal is your soul,” La Chaise tells Louis. “And you only have one of those to lose.”
Louis says he’s not worried about his soul. “Not just yet,” he says. But the film itself is deeply preoccupied with it. La Chaise and the doctor (Yves De La Croix) battle over it, in a way—each trying to pull the king to their way of thinking. And as such, their debates become a clash between science and faith (never mind that the “scientist” wants to perform a sacrificial rite during an eclipse).
“What you propose, doctor, is sacrilegious,” La Chaise says.
“What I propose is revolutionary,” the doctor retorts.
They clash again when Marie-Josephe breaks her arm. The doctor wants to amputate immediately, as (we’re told) was the accepted scientific practice of the day. “The bone will not heal itself,” he sniffs. But Marie-Josephe begs to see if the bone might do just that: “God will protect me,” she tells the doctor. And La Chaise backs her up.
“God is with her,” he says, which he adds is, “Even better than science.” And when the arm is miraculously better the next morning (thanks to a secret swim with the mermaid), it seems as if God has had the last word on the matter.
But Louis is determined to give “science” its say in the matter of the mermaid: Both Marie-Josephe and La Chaise are convinced that killing her would equate to murdering a sentient being and, thus, a mortal sin. But when La Chaise quotes the Bible (Romans 8:27) as a way to dissuade the king from the sacrifice, Louis loses his temper.
“Command me, oh heavenly Father!” he thunders mockingly. “Strike me down here and now if I’m about to commit a mortal sin!” God does not strike, but La Chaise takes the jeweled cross that hangs about his neck and leaves it on the floor, symbolically telling the king that he’s leaving him to do as he will.
Speaking of sin, the nuns at the abbey are sure Marie-Josephe is committing one by swimming. “It’s Satan’s voice that calls you to the unholy sea!” they tell her—an assertion that Marie-Josephe denies. When a carriage comes to take her away, Marie-Josephe asks where she’s being taken. “To a lavish and glimmering hell,” the abbess says. “Where you will, no doubt, thrive.”
Louis partakes in the rite of confession every morning with La Chaise—often a perfunctory ceremony in which the king talks about the previous night’s indiscretions, and La Chaise tells him as equally perfunctory that he’s been forgiven. One such confession, though, packs a bigger wallop for both of them. We see people pray and hear about how their prayers have been answered.
The “indiscretions” mentioned in the above section almost always seem to be sexual in nature, though the movie does not belabor them. “I shared my bed with Madame Scariou,” Louis says, for instance: That’s as explicit as those confessions get, though the “Madame” indicates that Louis slept with a married woman, and La Chaise corrects him on the woman’s identity (suggesting that Louis doesn’t even pay much attention to his paramours).
Marie-Josephe herself was conceived and born out of wedlock, though (again) the movie does not go into detail. We only know that of all Louis’ (ahem) girlfriends, Marie-Josephe’s mother was the one who left him smitten: She left the palace before Louis even knew that she was “with child.”
Marie-Josephe and other women wear shoulder-baring, cleavage-enhancing gowns (as was the fashion at the time). She falls in love and kisses her beau a few times. She swims fully dressed at times (or, at least, in her nightgown), and we can occasionally catch a glimpse at the undergarments she wears beneath. Men and women both sometimes wear garish makeup.
The mermaid doesn’t appear to sport a top, though her chest is usually in shadow. When audiences do get a glimpse of her chest, scales seem to cover her nearly to her shoulders and neck, and any view of her breasts is indistinct. (At its most titillating, the mermaid would give off the vibe of a topless Barbie doll.) We also see pictures of mermaids in books, depicting the creatures wearing bikini-like tops or covered by their own hair.
Louis gets shot in the shoulder by a would-be assassin: The doctor remarks (as he’s placing a bandage on the wound) that just “a few inches to the right,” and the bullet would’ve found his heart.
Marie-Josephe breaks her arm while riding a horse: She gets thwacked by a tree branch, which sends her falling to the ground below. Someone is pulled underwater by a water wheel, perhaps lethally. Other people fight in water. Depth charges explode in the ocean’s briny depths. People point and occasionally fire guns. A couple of guys nearly beat each other up during a fancy dinner (but they’re quickly separated before any punches can be thrown).
None, though we do hear spiritually accurate uses of the words “damn” and “hell.”
People appear to drink wine during some ritzy dinners.
We’re told that humility is not a virtue at Versailles. The royals who live there are deeply consumed with status and self, and we see plenty of gossiping cliques around the grounds.
The King’s Daughter begins, quite literally, with the words “Once upon a time.” Despite the presence of a very historical king (Louis XIV) in a very historical place (the palace of Versailles, what with its clever fountains and altogether too-clever residents), we’re meant to be whisked into a more mystical place and time, where princesses occasionally can feel peas underneath stacks of mattresses, where wolves might blow down straw houses and eat unsuspecting grandmothers.
As such, the film (based on Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1997 novel The Moon and the Sun) doesn’t always feel all that logical: I mean, even setting aside beautiful mermaids with miraculous healing powers, the story can feel a bit contrived. Characters are conveniently melodramatic, and sometimes what they do doesn’t make a lick of sense.
That might help explain why the film (originally made in 2014) took eight years to find its way to release.
But when viewed as a fairy tale—one that’s not just trying to spin a good yarn, but to leave behind a good moral—The King’s Daughter has a lot to say.
The King’s Daughter is not, technically, a Christian movie. But directed by Sean McNamara—the guy behind such faith-adjacent films as Soul Surfer and The Miracle Season—it is deeply, refreshingly spiritual. It takes both sin and salvation very seriously, and it honestly has more faith content than many movies labeled “Christian” do. Indeed, The King’s Daughter is, in some ways, less about the movie’s titular daughter or its all-important mermaid, but the war over the king’s soul—La Chaise on one side, the devilish doctor on the other.
And like all good fairy tales, The King’s Daughter hides depth within its simplicity. Obviously, it encourages viewers to think about our era’s own clashes between faith and science. But in the king, the film gives us a microcosm of our own very real spiritual struggles.
Like Louis, we often seek to be the gods of our own lives—to control what we can and grow angry and bitter toward what we can’t. And maybe we have good motives, at least in part: But like the king, sometimes those motives are mixed with the baser inclinations of power and pleasure.
“God’s in control,” we sometimes tell ourselves. And for the most part, we speak those words to reassure ourselves of that truism when things are absolutely and obviously out of our control. If our favorite politician loses a race, or a scary disease breaks out, or war is brewing somewhere, we’ll remind ourselves that God is in control, that ultimately—very ultimately—things will be OK.
But that saying is just as true even if we wish it wasn’t, when we look to increase our own stature at the expense of others or feather our nests with money we know could be better spent elsewhere. Sure, we’re in control of those decisions. But if God was truly in control of us, as He should be—if we turned the steering wheel over to the Almighty—where would He take us?
Louis may be the king. He may have all the authority a mortal can muster. But the movie tells us that some things are better off in God’s hands—and as frustrating as that can be in our more selfish moments, we’re all better off because of it.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.