The Death of Louis XIV

THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV, his­tor­i­cal drama, not rated, in French with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Jon Bowman

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

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