Discussing "The Death of Louis XIV" with Albert Serra

The provocative Catalan director discusses filming a tender period film, working with New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud, and more.
Daniel Kasman

The death of a king, the death of cinema: in Albert Serra’s La mort de Louis XIV we watch French New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud embody the Sun King as a living body sinking into the shadows, slipping away while his attendants, doctors and sycophants carefully tend to him as if all will be fine. But will it? An actor synonymous with the 1960s re-invention of cinema, made in close collaboration with such epoch-defining directors as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Jacques Rivette, Léaud is now 71, five years younger than the age the most ambitious, powerful, and famous of French kings died of gangrene. The title spoils the fun on purpose: Albert Serra’s film is not about what happens; rather, it’s paying homage a king among men, the fading into the dark of a man inseparable from modern cinema.

Those familiar with this Catalan director’s radical minimalism in adapting period texts (Don Quixote, the Bible, the story of Casanova) will hardly be surprised at the modestly and constraint of La morte de Louis XIV, which makes Roberto Rossellini’s astounding “didactic” biopic, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, look positively epic in comparison. Serra’s elegy essentially all takes place in the one room hosting the deathbed of the king, who is increasingly bedridden, hardly eating, and barely verbal—though not without his flourishes. In the fabulous opening scene, several court ladies request his presence and, from his prone position in sublime costume, instead of getting up he requests his hat from his valet, doffs it in homage, and then requests his valet remove his hat.

Léaud’s aged body, bedecked in volcanic gray wigs and golden-hued bedclothes, is the subject around the film and its world revolves. We see it in intimate detail: a left eye that twitches, the mouth that used to scowl in the Parisian streets now turned to a permanent droop, and an old man’s legs and paunch. But also Léaud’s characteristic charm and consideration, that moment where this very interior of actors, who often is playing a character stuck in his own head, notices those around him and, as with the extravagant gesture of the plumed hat, makes the sweetest of efforts in attention and kindness. And Serra pays it in return. This filmmaker often has reveled in the ridiculous grossness of the human body, mixing earthy humor of farts and fat with high-class source material to make for a mixture of satire, parody and exaltation. In La mort de Louis XIV, he suppresses those instincts to honor his legendary actor, treating his aging with gorgeous candle-lit portraiture and a tender care far more sensitive than those of the king’s doctors.

These doctors question, prod, and beg, turning to the new Parisian academy of medicine and later, in one of several moments of droll hilarity, to a new-fangled doctor from Marseilles, played by Vicenç Altaió (Casanova in Serra’s Story of My Death), who advocates not science but elixirs and earthly mysticism. These doctors and their techniques are like manifold critics, each with their own interpretation, fawning and rivalry, and they butt heads with the slyly arrogant calm of the king’s beloved valet (Marc Susini). All try to honor the king, deny the true extent of his ailment, and keep the man alive. Statecraft and politics barely figure; all that’s left of the Empire is this reclining body, increasingly impassive and removed surrounding affairs. The body remains, and to look at it, even if death has passed, the soul nevertheless stays present with it. La mort de Louis XIV preserves it thus.

NOTEBOOK: You’re still quite young. Why make a movie about aging into death?

ALBERT SERRA: I don’t know. Maybe it’s the guilty pleasure of putting powerful people on the edge of dying and not being so happy to do that. Because when you have all of the things here, it’s more difficult to live—and I like this. I like the contrast, obviously, of being in absolute power and being completely impotent with illness and with death, with the end of life. So, regarding impotence, there is a small quote in the film, when he talks to the kid, a small kid, and says “don’t imitate me with the buildings, the passion for building and war.” Because it’s true: that time was the beginning of the decadence of the state, of money and bankruptcy. So, if you loan, you know, if you pick up money from banks, and if you don’t give it back you’re also impotent and you are dead.

NOTEBOOK: It’s a bit like in Story of My Death, you see this as the portrait of the end of an era…

SERRA: Yes, the end of an era: the state, the concept that it is ran down, that it is the beginning of the decline of this idea, and then new ideas will [emerge], not immediately, but it’s obvious that it doesn’t work at this level. I was more focused on the process of agony, the concept of agony, and also on representation (because it’s very difficult to hold the thing) and also on intimacy; and this is what the film deals with, through closer shots, through some violent regards, the eyes, the craziness… It’s nothing that comes from drama, you know? It comes, as Jean Douchet said about my previous film, it comes from the dramaturgy of presence, the presence of an actor. All things that happen are because of this presence that emanates, that goes out from this presence. There’s nothing, no way of knowing how he lives, the agony, what he thinks, how his face with react… For me it’s also a discovery and about living this process in the present.

It’s very important with period films, because if not, it’s like a cliche. We all know the truth, we all know how this character was, this doctor, if he was right or wrong… Usually in period films things are happening in the present and, well, this is always part of my methodology, which also works for professional actors. I discussed this in my last conversation, briefly, that this can also apply to professional actors. My methodology is so crazy. Not crazy, but, for example, three cameras continuously shooting the scenes, never preparing shots, scenes transforming into others, going back to previous scenes, with variations, et cetera. I like this, and even a professional actor can’t escape this logic—or this absence of logic—which also helps with the absence of communication I always apply. In this case, with Jean-Pierre, this was also his own way of working. We communicated little bit and we never made rehearsals obviously. The first day of shooting was the first day for him as Louis XIV. So we started on that day, and filmed for 15 days, and then it was over. This is also a challenge for an actor, I think, because they have no information.

NOTEBOOK: No information, and also, as performers, you’re asking them to be incredibly passive but still physical. How do you direct someone to do nothing but yet still be present?

SERRA: Doing nothing is a consequence of doing a lot. We have the traces of doing a lot in doing nothing. Doing a lot of thinking, for example. Doing a lot is in the violence, it’s sometimes in the sadness, in whatever. But, in general, sometimes, it comes so spontaneously. I can think that an idea of mine is absurd, but I never cut my own ideas, even if they are absurd. Or Jean-Pierre had his own ideas and I left him to it, even if I thought they were completely ridiculous and knew they would never make the final edit. When you want things happening in the present, when you want to make them alive in the present, you cannot direct in the present, because this would be a contradiction and nothing interesting will come out of it. So, I direct the film—and this is, sort of, a line from Warhol—a week before, maybe three hours before. I prepare, I insinuate things that will arrive sooner or later, but I don’t shoot in the real present. It works for my system. I’m not saying it’s good or not, that we should do this, or that, or whatever, but in my system it works. It also works for Jean-Pierre. It’s also about this “trying to be innocent” when you are in front of your own material. It’s so easy to make something speculative and to try to control effects, etc. It’s boring, you know, it’s like working.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of the material in front of you and your own process, you said just now that you had three cameras; and that’s part of your process, multiple cameras. Could you talk about the challenge of shooting in such a limited space: just one room and yet so many diverse images, lighting. How did you work to carve out that space?

SERRA: It’s difficult. It’s very difficult, because you are never sure. I never check images during the shoot, mostly, because I am not sure about what will work in the edit. I may say that we need similar lighting, and then I may think that maybe it might be boring, to use two similar lights, so I’ll say "let’s use different lights and different colors," and then I may say that it lacks homogeneity and then I may worry about it. It’s very difficult to know exactly because of my cinema, because I never know how I will edit the film. I don’t know which part of the film will be more important, or which actor will always be there, or which actor I will dislike later. I may try to cut all the scenes. I never know what will happen, which can be risky for the final result. Sometimes I’m lucky and sometimes I’m not. In the end, though, modern technology and post-production can help, if something is well done. But I’m never sure—which is something that really scares me sometimes. With actors I’m always sure that something will come out, sooner or later, and I know that I will manage with them during the edit. I know how to deal with that. But not with lights and all these other things. For example, with Jean-Pierre wearing a wig, I regretted it. I loved it at first, but then, we were there, and I thought that perhaps it was too much and that perhaps it was better to have him without the wig, to make him look more human. I never know how to balance these things. There is no script, so there’s no guarantee, there’s no reference. It’s very complicated, in fact. It’s a matter of intuition, of being lucky. The more intuition, the bigger the chances of being lucky, obviously.

NOTEBOOK: Was this, originally, quite a scripted film? How did you get from point "A" of the party to his death; and what you wanted to be waypoints along that journey…

SERRA: For me, the most beautiful thing was going from movement and gradually going to non-movement of the body. For example, first he walks, then he stops as he walks, then he walks less gradually, then he stays seated in bed, and then we see how, from seated position, he lays down, until he lays down completely. Or, for example, with the hands: first he still moves the hands, and then the hands move less, until you don’t know if he’s breathing or not, and then suddenly you don’t know what’s going on, and he dies. I like this idea of death. This was a beautiful point because usually, in death there is always the last moment, the last word, the last gesture, or the last meaning of life; and, in fact, in films, death is usually the last chant, the last ode, the last cry of life. It’s quite paradoxical that death is always seen in this way. But in my film it isn’t. In my film death simply eats life, and that’s all. Death is nothing. It’s not something that will see a dramatic point in the affirmation of life. No. Death is part of life. It’s simply that somebody disappears and that’s all. You don’t usually see that in films, and I like that. It was beautiful with Jean-Pierre.

NOTEBOOK: But the servants remain, and I was surprised to see this film continues this dynamic that you seem to love between master and servant.

SERRA: Yes, servants continue because life continues. Nothing changes when one is dead. A friend of mine who told me that we don’t need to worry about death because, you know, the day after everything continues. Your closest friends will continue with their own lives and your death with change nothing. I think the way they felt, or the way they faced death at the time was much colder than today. Today there is a romantic idea about death. For example, then seven out of eight kids in a family would die, or people would go to war and not come back, or one could die at age 20 because of a lack of medicine, or you could have an infection and die.

NOTEBOOK: In this case, it is a luxurious death because he’s so wealthy. His wealth makes his death luxurious…

SERRA: Yes. I like their two different approaches to medicine, the esoteric and the rational, because this is something that’s always inside us. You know, this irrational and rational approach. It’s scientifically proven that the irrational medical approach doesn’t work. Cancer, for example, is cured with chemotherapy and not with herbs, but at that time… The character of the charlatan is historically accurate, I didn’t invent him. A scene that people have liked is the one in which the doctors attempt to arrest this man and bring him to Bastille. These doctors thought that this man had worsened the illness and that he was the real problem. Then others in the film feel this man is very dangerous. They were killers that didn’t know anything about medicine. They wouldn’t cut a leg because they thought it wouldn’t help them. They didn’t want anything to be painful. I saw this website I liked when we started editing the film which mentioned the most dangerous doctors in history and this man was number two. He was clearly somebody who didn’t know anything about his job. Number one was Hippocrates. Apparently, all he says in his treaty, his book about medicine, is wrong. I mean, to put it simply.

NOTEBOOK: And even the correct medicine can’t cure it.

SERRA: Yes, this is the point: the impotence. The infinite power and the finite life, the finite body, which you cannot change for another. You cannot transfer your soul to another body. it’s simple. There’s no transfer. It’s beautiful, when people perform plastic surgery because they want to change this. They want to transform his body, they want to transplant the whole body, but they cannot, obviously, because it’s too complicated. It’s impossible to lift a soul that exists and transplant it into a younger body, to purify it. In a way it’s quite grotesque.

NOTEBOOK: A question that is very obvious, I suppose: how much were you thinking about Léaud as this container of cinema history? I mean, he really represents a certain movement, it’s a modernist cinema, that’s now maybe moving: Godard is old, Rivette is dead, Truffaut is dead, you know...is this the New Wave now?

SERRA: It could be. I don’t know. I don’t want it to be, because if you focus on that from the very beginning you are speculative and it’s not my way. I mean, even when I chose Jean-Pierre (in fact, he chose me), it was because I really admire him as a person. He’s somebody I really feel close to as a person, not as an actor. I didn’t even think about whether he could play or not. I liked him physically. I think that he has a very genetic French visage. In some of the shots, you know, some side shots of the lips, the nose… there is something in him that is genetically French and I thought this would work well. You can also see this on some of his younger pictures. He is also very friendly and I like his integrity, his human point of view on life, in general. But I never thought of him as an actor or about his capabilities to make the film. That’s my job and I knew we would manage. I didn’t care about that. It may appear I did, you know—the person, the actor, the character, maybe there were some crossing points—but it was never my intention. There might be a quite obvious moment that may seem like a closing circle, which is something I had never thought about myself until someone mentioned it. You know, at the end of The 400 Blows, when he looks at the camera and it freezes. People mentioned to me that this film felt like a closing circle and I didn’t exactly know which shot they were talking about. I personally liked what he was doing, the way in which he was looking, the intensity, the violence, the aggression…

Then, it was obvious that there was something else. I’m scared about the fact that people loved [the film]. It makes me feel it must be bad. I’m almost ashamed.

NOTEBOOK: Too much good press?

SERRA: Yes. I don’t know how to deal with that. It’s too weird. I was so focused on the edit, and for me the film was never moving and, people, apparently, you know...

NOTEBOOK: For you the film was never moving? Your experience was something different?

SERRA: It’s always very formal with me. I don’t know. I don’t feel anything. It’s very difficult because I’m so focused on the formal aspects, or on the aesthetic logic, to put it this way. If you have seen the film, I thought that on the last 45 minutes there are quite a lot of repetitions. It’s quite slow and repetitions are, you know... he gives water, gelatin, meat, grapes, water and, you know, it’s the same thing all the time. I don’t know why. I thought that people would say, "here he goes again, he’s provoking." But, no, everyone loved it and thought it was very sweet, when I thought it would be difficult to hold. You never know, because when I edit I never think about the effect of being... I’m always a spectator on the content of my own films, but I’m never a spectator on the formal side. Then I’m the opposite. I never see what’s going on, really. I try to assemble images next to each other, like in a factory, and always for rigorous reasons. I don’t know what effect these images that I put together will have on the souls of the viewers and I’m as surprised as everyone else. Obviously, I think that serious people will not love the film because it could be much better, which is quite an obvious point. But I also think it’s probably better than a lot of things you can find in between these walls, or bars, or whatever.

NOTEBOOK: So it would flatter you for me to tell you that I thought that it was boring?

SERRA: I think boring is a concept that never flatters me, because when I make a film I immediately think that it will never be boring. It’s not the film that’s boring. I prefer other words. For example, I prefer to hear that it’s absurd, or ridiculous. But boring is not a good word to use. If I were a girl, for example, I would never fall in love with someone who says that, because it would be very boring to be with a person like that. It’s smarter to think that it’s weak. It’s more ambiguous. You could say, “your film is really weak.” Well, fine, you know. I like that.


This interview was filmed by Chiara Marañón and Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here.

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