One of the most famous French medieval castles is in fact a reconstruction of the 19th century! Indeed, several times history has almost made Pierrefonds disappear.
Built around 1400 on the orders of Prince Louis of Orleans, the king’s brother, the castle was originally intended to control relations between Flanders and Burgundy. However, because of the struggles of the Hundred Years War, its sponsor was assassinated while the building was not yet completed. During the fighting between supporters of England and defenders of the French crown, Pierrefonds was burnt down. Then, during the Wars of Religion, the imposing walls of the castle still served as a shelter for some mercenaries opposed to the accession to power of the Protestant Henry IV. His son, Louis XIII still had to fight noble refugees at Pierrefonds who were taunting royal authority. So to prevent the use of the site by new enemies of the crown, the king ordered the demolition of the castle in 1617. The towers and ramparts were partially razed to the ground.
This demolition, however, left a very majestic ruin. These vestiges had attracted Napoleon, who bought the castle in 1813. This way, the emperor added the old Gothic castle to the hunting estate of the Compiègne forest, a city also housing a castle (rebuilt under Louis XVI, shortly before the Revolution) much appreciated by him. Then the romantic movement took over the evocative decor of Pierrefonds. Alexandre Dumas briefly describes it in Twenty years later, the continuation of D'Artagnan’s adventures. Because Porthos, one of the heroic musketeers, is, according to him, the lord of Pierrefonds! The painters also take pleasure in representing the powerful and melancholic towers. Eugène Isabey and Camille Corot represent the imposing ruins of Pierrefonds several times, still dominating the rural landscape.
Napoleon III who had come to power in the mid-nineteenth century, however, brought about an unexpected upheaval. Passionate about archeology, the new emperor has among his relatives the architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-Duc (1814-1879), who was already in charge of the restorations of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral and the medieval city of Carcassonne. Still property of the Bonaparte family, Pierrefonds was an interesting object of study for the emperor. In 1857, he asked Viollet-Le-Duc to excavate the ruins, and to rebuild the keep. The idea was to make of the place only a lodge during the imperial hunts in the forest.
However, this first project had quickly aroused the emperor's desire for a more ambitious reconstruction. So in 1862 he decided the total reconstruction of the castle – on his personal funds. Viollet-Le-Duc now has carte blanche to restore all the ramparts, and to build an imperial palace inside. Therefore, the exterior is essentially an archaeological reconstruction faithful to what the original castle was. On the other hand, the internal spaces – never completed – are the pure product of the architect’s imagination, who designed a number of spooky creatures to adorn the courtyard. In the same way, the interior decorations bear witness to its formal inventiveness, in its sense of polychromy and floral patterns. Pierrefonds constitutes the perfect alliance between the scholar knowing in depth the painted ornaments of the Gothic age with the creator who wishes to give new life to medieval forms, which he believes can serve as a base for the invention of a modern style.
While working on Pierrefonds, he wrote his Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XI° au XVI° siècle. This enormous work, of great erudition, will serve the specialists of the Middle Ages and the architects for a long time. Viollet-Le-Duc defines, for example, the principles of restoration:
To restore a building is not to maintain it, repair it or remake it: it is to re-establish it in a complete state which may never have existed at any given moment (…).
Definition often misunderstood, and highly contested! In his mind, restoration is not only an architectural maintenance operation. It is also historical research, which should provide explanations, and allow the future transmission of the restored monument. Later, the adversaries of Viollet-Le-Duc will especially upbraid him for having deviated from his initial theoretical prudence, and for having been too interventionist in his restorations ... His detractors even accused him of having done only a pastiche. However, the inventive decoration of Pierrefonds proves how much this architect laid the formal foundations which inspired Art Nouveau a few decades later.
The fall of the Second Empire in 1870 slowed down but did not stop the works. Napoleon III has only spent a few weeks there ... Modest budgets from the service of Historical Monuments enabled Viollet-Le-Duc to continue his work on the castle as best he could until his death. Despite the unfinished interiors, the restaurateur managed to make Pierrefonds a perfect testimony to the art of fortifications in the Middle Ages.
Soon opened to the public, Pierrefonds immediately began to amaze its visitors. But not only those who saw it with their own eyes. Because, as soon as the cinema appeared, Pierrefonds welcomed filming for silent films. Above all, Viollet-Le-Duc's masterpiece then attracted very different filmmakers.
The writer and poet Jean Cocteau places there in 1948 scenes from his romantic drama L’aigle à deux têtes. The young star Jean Marais plays a rebel in love with the queen: both die tragically, their love crushed by power.
The cape and sword films – a genre that was very much appreciated by the public – quickly took advantage of Pierrefonds' very evocative decor. André Hunebelle, a filmmaker specializing in adventure films, made three films there in succession. First, Le bossu, in 1959, based on Paul Féval’s novel. Jean Marais plays there a brave ruined knight, changing his identity to better avenge the assassination of a friend. Then, Le capitan, in 1960. This time Jean Marais (again him!) plays a noble helping with bravery Louis XIII against the enemies of the crown. Finally, in Le miracle des loups, in 1961, the ever-leaping Jean Marais embodies a valiant knight in love with a princess threatened by the wiles of the powerfuls ... Of course, each time the villains are beaten, and the hero triumphs!
Closer to the more modern new wave cinema, Jacques Demy produced Peau d'âne in 1970, a pop fantasy inspired by Charles Perrault's tale. Now Jean Marais has the role of an old king lost in mourning, who wants to marry his only daughter (the dazzling Catherine Deneuve). A worthy prince will win the heart of this princess after a number of trials ... Pierrefonds serves as the setting for the final scene of the kingdom guests.
In a completely different register, Jean-Marie Poiré filmed in 1998 at Pierrefonds some scenes from his successful comedy Les visiteurs 2. In fact, the castle was perfect for showing this story of a knight (Jean Reno) and his servant (Christian Clavier) crossing the time, confronted with a very different world… One of the characters having brought back gadgets of the XX ° century, the Inquisition takes it for a sorcerer, and wants to put it on the stake in the courtyard of Pierrefonds…
Luc Besson also used Pierrefonds in 1999 for a few scenes from Jeanne d’Arc. This re-reading of the national heroine battles against the English invaders gives rise to an epic film, a French version of the American blockbusters. Between devious plots of the English and the French, the director also wants to question the complexity of Joan of Arc character (ardent Milla Jovovich). Pierrefonds having been built at the end of the Hundred Years War, the place was really suitable to represent this era in cinema!
In addition to these French films, Pierrefonds was one of the sources of inspiration for Walt Disney for its Disneyland amusement park around 1960. The sketches of the animator Herbert Ryman quote Viollet-Le-Duc’s Pierrefonds to imagine the ideal castle of the Sleeping Beauty…
In addition, Randall Wallace shoots several scenes from The Man in the Iron Mask in 1998. Adapted from Alexandre Dumas, this spectacular film shows the valiant musketeers fighting against the injustice of the young Louis XIV king and replacing him by his twin brother (Leonardo di Caprio, in a subtle double role)!
For each of these filmmakers, without having to build expensive sets, inevitably seeming a bit false, the castle made it possible to strongly evoke the Middle Ages. The realism of the place supports well the cinematic narrative.
In the collective imagination, Pierrefonds has more than ever become the ideal Gothic castle. The work did by Viollet-Le-Duc for Napoleon III made a wide variety of audience’s dream. Thanks to the science of his restaurateur and the magic of cinema, Pierrefonds therefore acquired the dimension of an eternal Gothic dream.