The title says it all. Louis XIV, France’s most glorious king, returns from a hunting trip and is struck by gangrene, and we are settled into the quivering microcosm of his deathbed.
This is not a dramatic film, but rather one designed to provoke reflection while offering an artistic experience. The cinematography is the skeleton of this film: attention to detail of the era is first-rate. Louis’ fur, his wig, even his onyx ring attests to this. The lighting reminiscent of Caravaggio’s candlelit portraits compounded with so many wigs results I something resembling a nightmarish masquerade ball, especially when Le Brun (Vicenç Altaió) toasts his ‘elixir’ saying ‘to life and to death’.
It is a display of delicacy to represent a death with compassion. There is softness here, a silent evocation of empathy, which humanizes the sparkling figure history has left us. He becomes simply a man, and it is interesting to see a film about an old man and an old king when films are usually about young heroes and princes. Jean-Pierre Léaud as Louis carries the film splendidly, conveying a frightened childish look that occasionally peaks through sullen dignity. Though he barely speaks, Léaud expressively and convincingly conveys Louis’ increasing physical and spiritual exhaustion.
Gradually one realizes that there is a stratum of tropes in The Death of Louis XIV: the aforementioned human, political, and medical. The political and the medical intertwine in urgent whispers in the tense affairs of Louis’ death. There is also a struggle between the regal and theocratic realm and the flowering Enlightenment: most powerful and touching scenes are those of the king instructing the dauphin about God and the autopsy at the end, evoking Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp’, with the doctor drily saying, ‘Gentlemen, we will do better next time’.
Be warned: this is a painful film for those who are not comfortable with the ephemeral nature of life. One becomes aware of the fact that as lonely as it to be on earth, it is lonelier yet to be a king. Louis’ groans of agony place the audience in an atmosphere of uncomfortable voyeurism. The chilling element is the sense of futility that overwhelms the films, and this is exemplified by the overly long still shots, which effectively could have been compressed. Although the static sentiment is intentional, more Wagnerian interludes would have added a dimension of greatness befitting ‘The Sun King’. The scarcity of music jars with the richness of the cinematography.
In essence, the plot is sinister but the execution is sound. If you want to gain something from this film, I suggest that you look closely: there is no immediate gratification, but there is subtle substance. It is absolutely a film for lovers of European history.
Dir: Albert Serra
Scr: Thierry Lounas, Albert Serra
Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick D’Assumçao, Marc Susini, Bernard Belin, Ireene Silvagni, Vicenç Altaió
DOP: Jonathan Ricquebourg
Country: France, Spain, Portugal
Run time: 115 min
To be released on the 14th of July.