NYFF review: The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)

The “death drama” as a narrative construct seems to have gained renewed popularity after Michael Haneke’s Amour won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Last year at Cannes, two films seemed to attempt variations of it – Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (interestingly, Moretti was the one who gave the Palme d’Or to Amour) and Michel Franco’s Chronic. Both films concerned themselves acutely with death either out of old age or illness, but both had larger narratives beyond that. Now comes Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (adapted from the memoirs of courtier Saint-Simon), which premiered out of competition at Cannes this year, and which more closely resembles Haneke’s vision.

Serra, like Haneke, begins his narrative with a lone outdoors shot in which Louis XIV, aged 76 in August 1715, is touring the Versailles gardens in a wheelchair. After that, the movie retreats even further than Haneke. While Haneke confined his film to a single Parisian apartment, Serra confines his film to a single room, the King’s bedchamber, ornate and baroque, in the Palace of Versailles, and the entire film unfolds there as Serra charts his decline in great detail.

Serra chose this narrative structure for much the same reason as Haneke did: it avails the film of the three classic unities of Greek drama – unity of action, time and place. Such a narrative can heighten intensity, as it effectively locks the viewer into the bedchamber with the dying king. With no subplots to cut to and nowhere else to go, all that remains for the audience to revel in is the spectacle of Louis XIV’s slow, protracted and painful death.

At the center of it all is French legend and world cinema icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, who at the age of 72 might ultimately be playing one of his last important roles here. He musters up a lifetime’s worth of experience – he’s practically cinema royalty at this point – to imbue the character with just that: a sovereignty which is hard to act but can be credibly inhabited by a great icon. Léaud, decaying right before our eyes, his withered, sunken facial muscles inadvertently trembling with old age, his breathing heaving and labored, the swallowing of his own spit excruciating, still commands the screen arrestingly much like Louis XIV would have commanded the room, with a kind of faded grandeur, that of a once virile monarch now falling to pieces in old age.

The situation is lent an added gravity by the visual look of the film. As if lit by candlelight (much like the interior night-time scenes in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), the screen is often realistically shrouded in darkness and shadows, the chiaroscuro lighting making the images look like paintings come to life. Serra also cannily films almost the entire film in close-ups, which makes the imminent death of Louis XIV very tangible and even ultimately tasteable. When Louis XIV complains his gangrene-infested leg is stinking, you can smell it too and feel the squalor of those old-time chambers.

There are a few other characters that appear on screen, chief among them another historical figure: Doctor Fagon (apparently listed as the 2nd worst doctor in history), played by Patrick d’Assumçao of Stranger By The Lake fame. He and an entire supporting army of hapless and clueless doctors and consultants and advisors and chiefs of staff grievously misinterpret the symptoms, offer ineffectual treatments that make things worse, and even resort to “magicians” to try to cure the king (Louis XIV is at one point fed an elixir made out of bull’s sperm). All to no avail – the king dies just the same (no spoiler in the title), with all of the indignity that death brings with it.

Serra more than anything else highlights the banality of death – just how ordinary it all feels, even the death of a person who literally changed the world in significant ways. There is still the broth to be eaten which spills down the chin, the child-like screams in the night, the stink of a decaying body. One feels as if Serra is calling forth the ghost of Guy De Maupassant’s disillusioned heroine, Madame Bovary, who also found death utterly inglorious, unromantic, and unedifying.

In its prolonged and repetitive sequences of eating, drinking, staring into space, perspiring, praying (the preceding list truly captures all the significant incident in the film), the film betrays its roots. Originally conceived as an art installation, it was supposed to be a 15-day display with actors behind a glass screen enacting continuously pretty much what you see on screen. The repetition makes for an unnerving viewing experience and many will find the film very boring and their eyes glazing over as they doze off, or their mind starting to wander to all sorts of other things. But this is in a way part of the point, and it is Serra’s skill which will put you in the frame of mind of Louis XIV in his final moments – time feels like it’s come to a stop and minutes, days, weeks become one giant blur.

Commercial prospects might be low, but adventurous festival-goers will find plenty to engage them, not the least Léaud’s magnificent performance. His eyes gleam in the candlelight, wordlessly conveying the vain battle that his mind wages to hold on to its intelligence and lucidity. His face, framed by his grand kingly wig, even in death looks like it belongs on a coin. Death is the most isolating of all experiences and watching the film unfold in a darkened theater, seemingly surrounded by countless people yet alone in your silent viewing, is a strangely moving experience.