The story takes place in France over a seven year period at the end of the 17th century, behind the closed doors of a prestigious school, the Ecole de Saint-Cyr.
Two hundred and fifty young girls from impoverished noble families are adopted by King Louis 14th. The sumptuous Ecole de Saint-Cyr, directed by Madame de Maintenon, the king's secret wife, opens its doors to them. Amongst the chosen youngsters are two inseparable friends—Anne and Madeleine (10 years old) for whom this opportunity comes truly once in a lifetime. At a time when barely fifteen women out of one hundred know how to sign their name, these girls will receive an education of exceptional quality, allowing them to choose their destiny.
But Madame de Maintenon's unavowed wish is to restore Christian purity in the kingdom and to transform "her little girls" into perfect models of virtue. It is with this deed that she wants to redeem the king's soul, after years of war and debauchery.
Madeleine—brilliant and idealistic—soon becomes the "pearl of Saint-Cyr," Anne, somewhat more lucid, refuses to believe in the promise of freedom that was made to them and resists Madame de Maintenon's all-embracing hold.
The girls' fate takes a turn for the worse as they perform in "Esther," a play which Racine—the greatest poet of those times—was commissioned to write especially for them. The success of the performance is immense. The entire royal court makes it a point of honour to attend the showings. The youth and enthusiasm of the actresses give rise to unexpected disorders and passions amongst the courtiers. A young page boy falls helplessly in love with Madeleine.
Madame de Maintenon finds her grip loosening from her project; she sees her plans to impregnate the kingdom with Christian virtue slipping away and the king's soul condemned to hellfire. The reputed school—erstwhile an institution of intelligence and academic freedom—is suddenly transformed into an austere and archaic convent. Madeleine, stricken with an epidemic which ravages the community, tragically passes away. Anne survives her to remain the last guardian of utopia within Saint-Cyr's walls. She resists to the very end, transmitting to the younger girls her spirit of revolt and her quest for freedom.
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