The Death of Louis XIV
Directed by Albert Serra
Opens March 31 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
It was in the fall of 1958 that François Truffaut, on the recommendation of a fellow Cahiers du cinéma critic, auditioned the 14-year-old son of an assistant scriptwriter and an actress—an eighth-grader who was growing “unmanageable” at school, its head huffily informed Truffaut—to play the autobiographical protagonist of his first feature, The 400 Blows. The rest, as they say, is history: The boy took the character of Antoine Doinel and ran with it, making it his own across the span of five films and two decades. Fast-forward several decades to The Death of Louix XIV, a wryly classical film that gives the now-70-something Jean-Pierre Léaud—forever an icon of the youthfully insouciant French New Wave as a collaborator of Godard, Rivette, and Eustache, in addition to Truffaut—his most substantial role of the 21st century: the lolling Louis XIV on his deathbed. The Catalan director Albert Serra—who wrote the script, based substantially on medical records and a memoir by the Duke of Saint-Simon, with Thierry Lunas—keeps almost all of the action confined to the immediate vicinity of the Sun King’s plush bedroom, making the film the very definition of a chamber piece.
Serra takes pains to show that this role was tailor-made for the twilight of Léaud’s illustrious career: The director decks him out like the filmic royalty he is, the massive gray bouffant that often crowns his head representing not only the outlandish stature of his character but also the glorious top-heaviness, at this late stage, of the actor’s on-screen persona. (As it turns out, the wig is about as expressive as the actor’s face, which alternates between affectless superiority and faint winces.) But Serra’s meta-cinematic play also extends well beyond the casting. Death and decay themselves become spectacular events, as the king’s retinue of doctors, aides, and courtiers watch on tenterhooks as the “divine” ruler consents to have his troublesome leg slathered in black ointment, and deigns to eat a spoonful of jelly. One early meal taken in bed—interpreted as a sign that the king’s appetite has finally returned after a bout of fever—even merits an admiring round of applause from a gallery of onlookers.
In due time, a gaggle of doctors from the Sorbonne arrives to assess the situation, one of them recommending that the king be bled, “even if he doesn’t like it”; perhaps more consequentially, an unctuous quack from Marseille also shows up, his proprietary snake-oil “elixir” only seeming to hasten the king’s decline. Serra—whose last feature was the more fantastical Locarno winner Story of My Death, featuring Casanova and Dracula engaged in an extended philosophical tête-à-tête—relishes the absurdity of the whole situation: The deference of the king’s attendants only seems to diminish the quality of their caregiving, as they continue to avoid acknowledging unpleasant facts and cast their lot instead with miracle cures and wishful thinking.
“Every film is a documentary of its actors,” goes one of Godard’s more famous quips. And that’s especially the case here, as Serra very often shows Léaud just lying there by candlelight, enduring a better-attended version of the bodily attrition that awaits us all, as his left leg slowly becomes fully charred by gangrene, his appetite deserts him, and his voice constricts to a dry wheeze. The film is, for all intents and purposes, apolitical: Aside from some stray talk of duties, there’s little of the jockeying for power of standard palace sagas—including Robert Rossellini’s 1966 history drama The Taking of Power by Louix XIV, that other auteurist treatment of a sliver of the monarch’s horizon-spanning 72-year reign. Serra’s film is the rare decorous period piece that doesn’t really aim for transporting, instead finding a sort of worm-eaten intrigue in the interiority of death, and savoring as well the irony of its undignified intrusion into even the most dignified of realms. As for the members of the audience, they might well be driven to ponder the shabbiness of their cloth seats, as well as their own less advanced stage of decay.