Film Reviews

TIFF Review: ‘The Death of Louis XIV’

An allegory for the death of cinema?

Courtesy of TIFF

The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Louis XIV)
(France/Portugal/Spain, 115 min.)
Dir. Albert Serra, Writ. Albert Serra, Thierry Lounas
Starring: José Wallenstein, Filipe Duarte
Programme: Wavelengths (North American Premiere)

A crowd of incompetent doctors and fawning courtiers make pathetic attempts to save and serve the Sun King, deathly ill with gangrene, in Albert Serra’s new film, The Death of Louis XIV. Winner of the Prix Jean Vigo at Cannes, Serra joked before the film that this is the first of his films that held its audience throughout the screening. While I still prefer his last film, Story of My Death, this one is deceptively rich as well.

Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the dying king, imbuing the decadent and grotesque proceedings with subtle pathos and occasional light comedy, a restrained approach matched by the film’s glacial pace and muted affect. Serra’s stated aim was to transcend both the historical distance and clichéd representations of death, giving a sense of quotidian immediacy to the drama, and if the result can come off as deliberate or even soporific, it’s by design. It’s as though the film uses silence to explain eloquence: impulsiveness has no place in this tense, performative Versailles; every word spoken by anyone except the king is calibrated, calculated, measured.

Quotidian is the word for Serra’s film. Though the grotesquerie of Louis’ era is milked at times and the range of emotions displayed by the royal court’s participants is limited, the story of the “Sun King’s” last days emerges as it would in an observational documentary. The opulence of Versailles, with its ancien régime costumes and courtly etiquette, is flipped on its head, giving way to shadows, ridiculous wigs and bumbling servants. All involved—doctors, charlatans, courtesans, dignitaries—perform in blind faith that, against all evidence, the king will survive to, variously, eat elaborate meals, receive guests, attend Mass, and—most ludicrously—pay for the construction of a fortress.

The king himself abandons any notion of his survival well before his handlers do, descending into mute suffering by day and childish neediness by night, making a brief exception, ironic in the face of historical events, to advise his heir (that would be Louis XV) not to make war on his neighbours. In the film’s funniest moment, the doctors advise the king, in failing health, not to embrace some new cure but to arrest the charlatan whose outlandish potion has failed to cure him; the king agrees. In this film, basic impulses—thirst, pain relief, revenge—trump grace.

Towards the end of the film, I developed the theory that the film was an allegory for the death of cinema. You have Jean-Pierre Léaud—possibly the most iconic child star in the history of world cinema based on his role in The 400 Blows, who went on to sophisticated sex symbol status in the oeuvres of Truffaut and Godard as well as in post-French New Wave classics like Rivette’s Out 1 and Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore — playing the listless, decadent king on the verge of both his own death and, just a little down the line, the end of his type of absolutist monarchy, in the cataclysm of revolution and the ensuing advent of modernity. Taking care of him are doctors whose performative sincerity and ability are highly dubious. And it all takes place within the crushing banality of crumbling opulence.

Could the doctors be today’s uninspired critics and careerist bureaucrats, playing at cinephilia without genuine feeling or talent? Could Léaud be a cipher for a certain idea of cinema, once glorious, now gangrenous? Serra, the farthest thing from pompous, surely wouldn’t touch the idea, but much of contemporary cinema seems tired. Independent film has retreated into minimalism, Hollywood gets bigger and more out of touch daily, and almost everybody else strains whatever content they’ve got into a three-act narrative and hopes nobody will notice they’ve got nothing to say. At least we’ve got Wavelengths, and people like Albert Serra, trying against all odds to do something different.

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