The Death of Louis XIV plays October 6 and 7 as part of the Explorations section of the 54th New York Film Festival. Cinema Guild will release the film theatrically. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
A fundamental form of modernist naturalism seems to be what Albert Serra is reaching for in his new feature, The Death of Louis XIV. Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance as the visibly decaying monarch could be described as “majestic” or “regal” in the sense that he acts and looks the way royalty probably did in the Age of Reason: humorless and bored. There is exactly one moment in the film where King Louis is incontestably cheerful, when reunited with his pet dogs (of course, the only non-human entities in the picture), and it’s all airless meetings in cloistered rooms and bouts of physical ailment from there. This is not to suggest some sort of downward momentum, as the film’s subject (and its ethos) is very much focused on stasis. We are meant to sit and stew with Louis XIV in what feels like real time (thankfully not), watching one of French history’s most significant moments whittled down to a rarified, present experience.
Having not seen Serra’s previous films, it feels safe to say that he’s interested in giving visualization to the lives of male figures in the Western canon (Don Quixote in Birdsong, Casanova in Story of My Death). The question then arises whether or not the product of this impulse supplies any insight or value to what we already have, and perhaps that question might be Serra’s contribution to the ever-ongoing argument about the Death of Cinema. Either way, that’s not very interesting to ponder, so it’s probably best to focus on what the film contains within itself, which is a fairly compelling performance from Léaud, who now at the age of 72, gave the visceral impression he was actually slipping away before my eyes. Serra has a strong eye for composition, often employing the 2.35:1 frame to display the supine body of Louis XIV, overseen by his incompetent advisors and court-dwellers, as if encased in amber, only he isn’t going to be preserved.
What humor there is in the The Death of Louis XIV is often derived from this consistent ineptitude, beginning with the denial on the part of his doctors of what is obviously gangrene, moving to the multitude of ridiculous remedies tried to save the king (a concoction of donkey’s milk with bull’s semen and blood is particularly rich), and the bickering that goes on between the attendants as they come to terms with the fact of the death of the Sun King. Most of Serra’s film is shot in close-ups, the kind that distort faces into grotesque landscapes, and it becomes clear that this is his mode of subversion—quiet, but not gentle. Death of Louis XIV is as advertised: a two hour long depiction of the Death of Louis XIV. I’m skeptical as to whether it is much more than that, but as a showcase for both an expert performance from an autumnal Jean-Pierre Léaud and an attention to period mannerism and detail, it’s worth the time it takes to get to the end.