The Life Necrotic
By Leo Goldsmith
The Death of Louis XIV
Dir. Albert Serra, France/Portugal, Cinema Guild
Upon his death, Louis XIV was dissected and disemboweled, his head, heart, and entrails interred in three separate locations in accordance with a tradition intended to give future mourners more places to pay their respects. One might expect a similar kind of evisceration from filmmaker Albert Serra in his new film The Death of Louis XIV, as his earlier work has often adapted well-known events and literary works with cavalier disregard for detail and convention.
But as many critics have noted already, The Death of Louis XIV displays a kind of neoclassical restraint that seems to intentionally hark back to Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 take on the same historical figure, a surprising gesture for a director known for rather more bombast and formal experimentalism. The film relates a concise and fairly faithful account of the last days of the Sun King: from his withdrawal to his chambers to his summoning of great-grandson Louis XV to his bedside, to his death and autopsy. (These details come largely thanks to the accounts of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, the main source for the film’s screenplay, co-written by Serra and Thierry Lounas, a producer and founder of the production company and publishing house Capricci.) Each tiny event—every word to his servants, every “Bravo!” from his attendants for his successfully consuming a biscotin or hard-boiled egg, every doctor’s diagnosis—is like a station of the cross in a passion play. The iconic Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of the scions of the Nouvelle Vague’s very own royal family, plays the title role, here seen lounging, grunting, and generally drifting into senescence for the film’s duration.
Serra’s louche romanticism has always guaranteed excess, even when his films have relied on minuscule budgets pieced together from various regional and national European funding bodies. Yet, The Death of Louis XIV’s subject matter, star-power, and period finery (not to mention a lavish spread from craft services) would seem to dictate a considerable budget. The film has all the makings of the sort of studied-but-opulent, detailed-but-restrained Euro-art-house period piece that European cultural funding bodies spring for—and, indeed, there’s at least a dozen in the film’s credits. Why, just last year, the Château de Versailles put on its own tricentennial commemoration of Louis’s last days, which they publicized with a series of moment-by-moment tweets as if it were #BreakingNews. Serra has often professed an interest in, even an affinity for, despots and dictators like Kim Jong-Il and Vladimir Putin. So, why should his Louis XIV portrait be any less admiring than Saint-Simon’s own meticulous account?
The handsome national heritage period piece is the kind of film that Serra has thus far conspicuously refused to produce. And, restrained though the film is, he hasn’t quite obliged here either. The film is dimly lit, sparely appointed, and distinctly hushed and undramatic in tone. Moreover, as reverent as it may seem to its central subject and star, it’s hard not to perceive something darkly subversive in the making of a film in which a beloved cinematic icon sits in bed, made up like a poodle and festooned in wig, frills, feathers, and fabrics, rotting away from gangrene while a whirlwind of bland and ill-equipped hangers-on try vainly to keep him preserved.
If death is Serra’s subject here, it’s a very different kind of death than in his prior film, The Story of My Death (where the earlier film was playful and ironic, the new one is straightforward and reverent). Opposed as they are, that film’s Casanova and Dracula seem like two sides of a more vitalist approach to the end of life: both figures luxuriate in death as one of the many gooey, bubbling processes of the cycle of consumption and excretion and putrescence that is life. Louis is, by contrast, already dead by the film’s opening, an inert and non-functioning body. The orality of Casanova—his garrulousness, his constant guzzling of wine and slurping of pomegranate seeds—is reversed here. Louis is all refusal, non-communication, and non-relation: “Everything disgusts me.” A prequel to this film called “The Life of Louis XIV” might have looked rather like The Story of My Death: all eating and shitting, a Sade-ian parade of pleasures used up and discarded. But in the film, nothing passes through this body: it is closed. His mantra is a strange Bartlebian refusal: “No, no, I prefer to go to bed.”
In terms of style, there is a literal containment as well: the entire film takes place inside but for two brief moments—an early scene in a garden and a single shot of a Watteau-like landscape of verdant hills and fields viewed through the diamond-grid skein of a casement window. Earlier Serra films such as Birdsong and Honor of Knights are sprawling idylls—all landscape jaunts and meditative longueurs. The Story of My Death is composed in contrasts between late-afternoon interiors and forest nocturnes. But Louis XIV is all interior, the Palace of Versailles rendered largely as a series of dark enclosures and little pools of light, as the Sun King narrows his expansive empire to a single boudoir.
Serra’s camera, too, seems to have gotten closer to the actors. The length and rhythm of his trademark long-takes, tricky for even an accomplished performer to hold, are even more assured in this film, surely the result of a noticeably more confident approach to working with his cast. This film relies on fewer nonprofessionals than Serra’s previous work, but in Léaud, he has found something in between: an absurdly prolific actor who blurs the line between performance and “mere” presence. (In other words, a real movie star.) I’ve read dozens of reviews that remark on Léaud’s performance here as “majestic,” “extraordinary,” et cetera, but it’s utterly impossible to define. His sleepy reticence is mainly conveyed in the first half of the film through weary little sighs and distinctive half-smiles, with only occasional glimmers of real joy for his Borzois and for a bit of idle gossip. By around the film’s midpoint, as the king’s condition precipitously worsens, Léaud becomes almost entirely inert, his eyes turning black and his face slackening into ghastly death mask.
Serra has indicated in interviews that he wasn’t interested in Léaud’s past as an actor. This has got to be bullshit: the film’s brief moments of drama and all of its morbid fascination rely on our willingness to observe, in detail, the slow decay of a treasured body. The project actually began as a commission from the Centre Pompidou that was to feature Léaud performing the king’s death for two weeks while lying in bed inside a glass coffin, which says a lot about what interested Serra in the first place. The obsessive care for the body of the king—by servants and doctors and dietitians and priests and quacks—is all part of a process that renders Louis a hallowed corpse practically before the film begins. When we first see Léaud, the hagiography is already complete. What the film portrays is the embalmment: surgeons sniffing his gangrenous leg as it putrefies and turns black, valets anointing it with rosewater. The royal retinue tries everything—including an elixir made from bull sperm, blood, frog fat, and “brain juice”—but their mix of 18th century reason and pre-modern mumbo jumbo is good only for mummification.
So where do we locate the deepest sympathies of Serra’s film? Is it an attempt to venerate or to humanize? A work of iconoclasm? Or its opposite: an attempt to reify and preserve the iconography of the past using cinema’s own embalming fluids?
Indeed, there’s a lot of death on display these days, and measured though his film may seem, there might just be a hint that Serra derives some malicious pleasure in this spectacle of mortality. Certainly, he relishes its details and its distention of time, and all of the futile attempts of Louis’s attendants to dignify the ultimate indignity. Considering Louis’s own program of endless war, his deployment of power via a constant exercise of control over mortality for the glory of his country and himself, only the most conservative of royal watchers would take a film like this as one more pious obsequy to the Sun King’s head, heart, and entrails.
By the same token, one wonders if The Death of Louis XIV is really mourning that other moribund artifact of centuries past: the cinema. Surely rumors of the medium’s demise are as deathless as those defenses of its everlasting vitality. What do we see in the pallor of poor Léaud, lying in state and being prodded by his many aides and manservants? Do we hear “le roi est mort” or “viva la revolución”?