Even though his mannered Locarno Golden Leopard Winner The Story of My Death, about the eventual meeting of legendary (and thirsty) figures Casanova and Dracula, clocked in at a butt-numbing 150 minutes, the new feature from the Catalan king of stasis, Albert Serra, proves he’s got still more to say about dying — and, specifically, dying very slowly — in the 18th century. The good news is that The Death of Louis XIV (La Mort de Louis XIV) isn’t only the ultra-art house director’s first feature in which he works with professional actors instead of amateurs, but it’s also by far Serra’s most accessible work to date. Buyers and programmers familiar with the auteur will of course understand this hardly puts the film, essentially a death-chamber piece, in Avengers territory, though commercial prospects are certainly better than usual.
The film’s only exterior sequence comes at the very start, as the 76-year-old Louis XIV (French New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Leaud) surveys his famous gardens at Versailles, which were partially constructed during his 72-year reign. He’s in a proto-wheelchair because his leg already hurts and it certainly can’t be a coincidence that the monarch’s overlooking his estate in the twilight hours before retiring to the palace, a place he’ll only leave again a fortnight later, a dead man.
For almost the entire film that follows, Serra keeps the viewers inside the king’s bedroom, with practically no expeditions to even the adjacent room and corridors. The claustrophobic setting within what viewers presumably know is a vast expanse of real estate (which in turn was a tiny fleck of property within the Kingdom of France), is clearly meant to humanize the man who believed he ruled France by divine right but who, in his waning days and hours, looked just like millions of others on their deathbed. Ailing and bedridden, almost all of the king’s worldly possessions aren’t just offscreen but also literally out of reach for him and with this simple economical trick — no large sets or huge budgets required — Serra manages to scale a man-god back to increasingly fragile human dimensions.
The Death of Louis XIV, which unspools in chronological fashion, first sees various members of the court ask Louis to join their parties and gatherings, which he politely refuses. It’s clear from the early going he’s not well, with Serra and co-screenwriter and producer Thierry Lounas explaining both the brownnosing at the court and the king’s fragile health in a single short moment, as courtiers applaud after His Royal Highness has managed to eat a cookie for the first time in a while.
Louis tries to continue to run the country from his bed, receiving people asking for funding of coastal fortifications and instructing his five-year-old potential successor (the future Louis XV). But it is increasingly the likes of his physician, Fagon (Patrick D’Assumcao), and grave-looking men of the cloth such as Le Tellier (Jacques Henric), who crowd around his bed as his royal leg not only hurts, but also starts to show the ink-black spots of gangrene, which will finally kill him.
Fagon is hardheaded and doesn’t want to admit other experts but as Louis’s health deteriorates, eventually a group of doctors from the Sorbonne as well as an oddly accented quack from Marseilles with a life-saving elixir are admitted to his bedside. How much political and personal fights were fought over this kind of access is unclear, as Serra always remains within earshot of the titular protagonist, with the film almost unfolding like a diary reenactment of his last days on earth (and the day following his death).
If this sounds like this could be the recipe for a film full of longueurs and repetitions and scenes that might benefit from a wider view, then that would be technically correct but also exactly the point Serra is trying to make. By cataloging every spoon of food not eaten, every sip of water not swallowed and every sigh and every groan uttered, the myth becomes a man and the inherent paradox of being a divine ruler is revealed.
The more metaphorical meanings of Serra’s work will no-doubt please art house aficionados but what makes the film accessible is what’s actually onscreen. First, there is Leaud’s regal performance. Though it still takes a little effort to see the actor’s now leathery countenance without flashing back to his fresh-faced appearance as a 14-year-old in the most famous freeze-frame in cinema history, he does disappear into the role quite quickly. He’s dignified one moment, imperious the next — in one scene, he seems to prefer to choke rather than drink water from a glass that’s not actually crystal — and increasingly feeble and febrile. As befits a king, he commands attention even when he’s physically a wreck. Appropriately, all others around him are just satellites, deriving their importance and right to be there from his will and power, though they do remain behind and Serra has a deliciously ironic last line in store for one of the supporting characters.
Second, the film simply looks stunning. Unlike the anachronistic, mannerist or intentionally somewhat barren production design of some his previous features, Serra here opts for a painterly approach that combines a certain realism (if also an enormous opulence) in costumes, wigs and furniture with a rich, painterly look full of flickering candles and enveloping shadows. The light is literally dying in Jonathan Ricquebourg’s richly textured cinematography, while Sebastian Vogler’s production design is an impressively coordinated assembly of red and gold velvets, silks and brocades that, despite being no doubt the most luxurious in the kingdom, do nothing to alleviate the ruler’s pain. The extravagant wigs, which flank Louis’s increasingly hollow features, are similarly overflowing in an unnatural way that contrasts with the banality and nakedness of the person slowly dying underneath them.
The film’s most piercingly emotional moment is an unexpected instant in which Louis stares right into the camera in a medium shot as a Mozart mass plays on the soundtrack. Time suddenly seems to come to a halt and the commanding legend that was Louis XIV surfaces for a moment before the ailing mortal returns and is allowed to continue to die.
Production companies: Capricci Production, Rosa Filmes, Andergraun Films, Bobi Lux
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Patrick D’Assumcao, Marc Susini, Irene Silvagni, Bernard Belin, Jacques Henric
Director: Albert Serra
Screenplay: Albert Serra, Thierry Lounas
Producers: Thierry Lounas, Albert Serra, Joaquim Sapinho, Claire Bonnefoy
Director of photography: Jonathan Ricquebourg
Production designer: Sebastian Vogler
Costume designer: Nina Avramovic
Editors: Ariadna Ribas, Artur Tort, Albert Serra
Music: Marc Verdaguer
No rating, 112 minutes