The Death of Louis XIV
THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV, historical drama, not rated, in French with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
No European king enjoyed a longer reign than Louis XIV, who ruled France for 72 years, from 1643 until his death in 1715. Given his long service and high degree of public adulation, it’s odd that neither of the two best feature films depicting his life was made by a Frenchman, but were conceived by foreigners.
The first of these, The Rise of Louis XIV, came out in 1966, and stood as a remarkable late effort by Roberto Rossellini, one of the geniuses behind the Italian neorealist movement in cinema that flourished after World War II. His movie captures Louis’ earliest battles to consolidate his power on the throne and beat back scheming nobles intent on thwarting the young Sun King.
Now, the Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra has envisioned the perfect companion piece to Rossellini’s work — a languid chamber drama called The Death of Louis XIV. It focuses not at all on Louis’ rise, but on his final days, when this titan of royalty contemplates his mortality and spies the shadow of death descending upon him. Death is not at all an easy topic to broach in cinema. More often, the Grim Reaper is sidestepped or minimized. Serra, though, is known to be quite the radical thinker, and rather than shying away from the difficult subject matter, he faces it head-on.
His lead is none other than Jean-Pierre Léaud, who starred as François Truffaut’s rebellious delinquent Antoine Doinel in the 1959 film that truly helped defined the French New Wave — The 400 Blows. Unlike many child actors, Léaud made a successful transition to adult roles, going on to portray Doinel as a grownup, as well as appearing in Last Tango in
Paris and Irma Vep, among other arthouse hits. Léaud has done it all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if The 400 Blows and The Death of Louis XIV become the pictures for which he is best remembered — the beginning and the end, so to speak. He is on camera nearly the entire film. As his speech fails and body deteriorates, he falls back on grunts, tics, and fleeting eye gestures to convey what’s on his mind. Death is no longer an abstract concept, but something he carries in his left pocket and takes out for intimate conversations, to paraphrase Charles Bukowski.
There are a few intriguing side stories here — like the learned doctors from the Sorbonne coming unglued when a quack from Marseilles gets summoned to treat the ailing king with a magical elixir made of frog fat and bull sperm. But by and large, Serra drills down to Léaud, in bed in the same candlelit chamber room, gazing furtively and contemplating the inevitable as gangrene overtakes his legs. It’s a daring conceit, but pulled off with taut skill by Serra, who not only directed, but also co-wrote and co-edited the film.
King me: Jean-Pierre Léaud