The Death of Louis XIV
Directed by Albert Serra
By Noel Vera
ALBERT SERRA’S The Death of Louis XIV shares at first glance the same status as most living royalty in this more presidential, more prime-ministerial world: it feels oddly anachronistic; it appears to hold little relevance to our lives; and very little is said or actually happens in its relatively brief and quiet reign, beyond the eponymous event. It’s also to my mind one of the most gorgeous-looking — and funniest — films I’ve seen all year.
Serra’s concept, far as I can make it out, is to give us literally what the title says: the king’s death, depicted in close and painful detail. Doctors worry over marks on the king’s foot (he has gangrene, and they wonder if they should cut), ply him with jellies and fruits. At one point a charlatan coaxes him into taking down an “elixir” made out of bull’s sperm, bull’s blood, and frog fat (ate my share of bizarre foods and even I would hesitate). At another, the doctors massage the foot with leaves, twigs, and what looks like chopped mushrooms and whole garlic cloves — I’m reminded of a porchetta roast, trussed and thoroughly rubbed prior to putting in the oven.
The real drama swirls around the film’s still, silent center: the royal doctor Fagon (Patrick d’Assumcao) argues with chief valet Blouin (Marc Susini) on whether to let either the dogs or the birds near the king (the doctor prefers the dogs; Blouin is for the birds); Blouin wants to bring in a doctor from Marseilles named Le Brun (Vincenc Altaio) and Fagon is skeptical (turns out Le Brun is more poet than physician: “What is love? Love is pain… love manifests itself because the picture of the beloved remains blocked between the eyes.”) The infighting and squabbles are endless if hushed: folks constantly seek influence and favor while trying to tiptoe round the elephant wheezing in the room.
As said elephant Jean-Pierre Leaud — wrote “Antoine Doinel” before I caught myself, but that’s how indelible Leaud’s work has been to the French New Wave: you see his face and the first word to pop in mind might be the name of his first and most famous lead role, as Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical double in The 400 Blows. He’s worked for other filmmakers since: Jean Luc Godard, Jean Eustache, Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda, Aki Kaurismaki, Tsai Ming Liang among many others; as far as film lovers go he’s cinematic royalty and hence the choice to play French royalty.
Leaud cleverly underplays his Louis XIV as a man constantly exhausted by the least exertion; the one scene where we see him outside (the gardens of Versailles?) he’s being pushed on a wheelchair; when asked to join in a party he has to beg off and — as a gesture to their affection — asks for a hat to put on and doff them with. It’s a sly performance made up of a hundred little gestures, suggesting a ruler crippled by infirmity who still has his mind and — more importantly — his sense of humor. All the better to show how precipitous his fall when attacked by fever and then gangrene — the gestures ceased, the softspoken quips replaced by equally softspoken groans, the elegant expressiveness of the face congealed into a waxen mask.
Funny? Why, yes, yes I think it is, horrifyingly so: one look at that gargantuan wig on Louis’s head — as if a giant poodle decided to squat on his skull — and I can’t help but chuckle. The solemn process of attending to the death of a long-reigning ruler is stuffed full of absurdities, from a crowd of loyalists applauding Louis’s sucking on a spoonful of softboiled egg (“It’s wonderful Sire to see you have your appetite back”) to the royal physician holding up the royal large intestines like a chain of sausages and noting they are twice their normal size. The most affairs of state Louis manages to accomplish onscreen is to attend one council meeting (left undepicted) and to dismiss the issue of fortifications submitted by the Duke of York, presumably due to lack of funds — otherwise it’s all pain and sips of water and whether or not to cut off the steadily blackening leg. Democracy is hugely problematic till you realize that a form of government where the supreme leader has ruled for so long he can barely move his bowels, much less apply his brains, ain’t such a great system either.
Serra’s visual style avoids the Baroque opulence of the young Louis and opts for the more austere trappings of the late Louis — just a handful of richly red silks and velvets, and a pillow elaborately embroidered to lean on; the only real extravagance, and it’s admittedly a whopper, is the monumentally ridiculous wig (even in the king’s agonizing last moments it’s hard to repress a giggle). Serra indulges us by spending brief minutes outside (though carefully manicured hedges restrict our view of the horizon and dense tree branches cut off much of the sky) but soon moves indoors where the sense of claustrophobia becomes near unbearable — with Jonathan Ricquebourg as cinematographer, Serra takes his cue less from the official artwork of the period (Charles Le Brun, Adam Frans van der Meulen) than from the earlier smoky glass shadowiness of mature Rembrandt. After a while you may find it difficult to breathe.
In a way the film can’t help but be more relevant in 2017 than when first screened in Cannes 2016; watching it one can’t help but draw parallels with the present royalty sitting in the White House — the narcissism, the outsized ego, the way courtiers swirl around the sickly monster jockeying for position. Difference being Louis was well aware of the limits of his power and of the mistakes he made (onscreen at least we have a scene where the king briefs his grandson, Louis XV, on what to do or not do) while present king of the United States doesn’t seem to have a clue. Louis’s history can be instructive — he raised France to cultural and political glory but squandered much of the country’s wealth on building projects and foreign wars. The present king of the White House should really take heed, if he’s capable of heeding anything.
The movie is available on Google Play and Youtube paid online service.