Film History Royalty: Jean-Pierre Léaud as Louis XIV

When we talk about French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, we have the impression that we’ve seen his entire life play onscreen.
Alejandro Veciana

The 400 Blows. Courtesy of Shutterstock

For many directors, casting decisions are a crucial part of the writing process. They set the parameters in which the character can develop itself. Fundamentally, a good casting decision can make a character transcend its own scripted ambitions into wonderful, unexpected territories. But bad casting, as we know, can cripple not just a character’s potential but the entire film. It’s hard to talk about casting choices as creative decisions since they are so ingrained within certain creative impulses—the decision of choosing a particular actor over another can be based on mere gut feeling, a hunch, or an intellectual response. But of course, it can also depend (as it often does in large budget films) on an actor’s status, reputation or his or her monetary value. As we get to know actors, we see them typecast or cast against type but sometimes casting decisions go a bit further. It seems like some decisions, whether they are made by producers, investors, or the directors themselves, can work beyond the normal variables and inadvertently become self-aware decisions. In other words, the casting decision references itself and thus becomes self-conscious and even symbolic.

When we talk about French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, we often touch on the impression that we’ve seen his life play onscreen. This is specifically unique for Léaud, as critic J. Hoberman points out in a recent New York Times piece: “Something more than an actor or even a movie star, Jean-Pierre Léaud is a man who has lived his life on film.” We experienced Léaud’s life starting with his childhood in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, his rebellious adolescence in Jean-Luc Godard’s La chinoise, the troubled post-May ’68 hangover in The Mother and The Whore, the French film establishment in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep, an aging actor in Tsai Ming Lang’s film-within-a-film Face and more recently, on the king’s deathbed in Albert Serra’s masterful The Death of Louis XIV. His filmography tells us a story of film history. It’s hard to detach Léaud from this phenomenon, particularly because so many directors have cast him in a role that alludes to or directly references film history. For instance, it is almost impossible to separate Léaud from the looming shadow of his character as the Truffaut alter ego, Antoine Doinel, and so it feels like his subsequent roles are some sort of version of Doinel. Later in his career, Léaud played a director in films like Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Assayas’ Irma Vep and Bertrand Bonello’s The Pornographer. Even though these are, in their own right, very distinct films and the characters are all used differently, in each instance Bertolucci, Assayas and Bonello also employ Léaud as a reference.

The Pornographer

This particular use of an actor is a way in which the actor’s role is conditioned or rather tied to the actor’s reputation or previous work. Although not uncommon, it can occasionally work in a deeply compelling way. Naturally, silly meta moments like Julia Roberts playing a character impersonating Julia Roberts in Ocean’s 12 are simpleminded and dull, although more serious versions can often have the same obnoxious effect as a sort of an inside joke. A recent example that comes to mind and is in no way off-putting is the two young anarchist characters from Jim Jarmusch’s heartwarming Paterson. In a particular scene, Jarmusch reuses the same actors who were the leads in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, paying a sweet tribute to Anderson in a film that already includes many other lovely little homages. 

In Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Jean-Pierre Léaud renders a rigorous and exhaustive performance as France’s longest ruling monarch. Leaud and Serra construct a meticulously intimate look at death, filled with close-ups and profile shots while at the same time the film grows outwards, building on theatrics and iconography that border on satire. Gorgeously framed, the film’s nucleus is Leaud himself, who despite not being in history books (yet) still belongs to a certain category among French historical figures. Thus his presence on screen inevitably works as a double entendre: Leaud is playing the king of France, embodying an important epoch in French political history, while simultaneously embodying a certain period in cinema’s history. It is an eerie sight, leading one to wonder whether or not French cinema is dying with him.  

The Death of Louis XIV

It is worth noting, however, that Serra has denied any sort of symbolic intention—or so he claims, as Serra is also somewhat of a provocateur and this naïveté could well be calculated. But in his past work, Serra has avoided scripts and has often used non-actors in his films. In this case, Serra not only uses a professional actor but a legendary one at that. Yet Serra’s alleged lack of allegorical forethought could very well be viable, since the film's concept was first birthed as a commission by the Centre Georges Pompidou where the initial idea was that Léaud would play Louis XIV on his deathbed as a live performance. And in many ways, the film feels exactly like that, both intimate and public. Still, despite creative intent, the effect of having Léaud play this character, in addition to leading an enthralling performance, is undeniably symbolic. 

In The Death of Louis XIV, we are essentially watching the king die slowly at the hands of the utter ignorance of the Court's doctors. But Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold described it better during an overview discussion about Cannes last year (where Louis XIV played at a special screening) in which he recalled the experience as "watching Jean Pierre Léaud slowly die in front of you at the hands of Albert Serra.”

Yet Serra is not the only director to employ an actor in this way. Three well-known examples of this can be found in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire. Although each of these directors employ an actor in very different ways and with different agendas, they are all trying to make some sort of connection with cinema. In King of Comedy, Scorsese casts Jerry Lewis against type forcing Lewis to work through his character as the straight man, a role in which audiences had never seen him before. Yet the effect is similar to that of Léaud: Lewis is perceived as Jerry Lewis, not as his character Jerry Langford.

More commonly done, however, is the use of an actor as a tribute, like Allen’s use of renowned Swedish actor, Max von Sydow. Von Sydow plays a depressed intellectual painter who holds on to traditions ingrained in his old age in Hannah and Her Sisters. His young girlfriend (played by Barbara Hershey) and he have a typical Woody Allen teacher-pupil relationship, but since Allen is an avowed Ingmar Bergman fan his desire to cast von Sydow corresponds with his desire to use Bergman’s cinematic tools. Unlike Scorsese, Allen is not making the casting choice a central factor, he is merely reusing some Bergman elements and trying to make them work as his own. And in contrast to these two examples, there’s Peter Falk in Wender’s Wings of Desire. In that film, Falk’s demeanor is not reworked at all; he plays a version of himself as a former angel who roams the streets of ‘80s West Berlin. What’s interesting here is that Falk performs the same character we are used to getting from him but within Wenders’ particular perspective. Taking Falk out of context and dropping him into a world in which we’ve never seen him contrasts the familiar rugged masculinity of Falk with the more delicate poetry of Wenders.

Naturally, not all these examples are motivated by the same creative desires but they all work in similar ways. Casting decisions like these are not just a way in which filmmakers can acknowledge other films, they can also speak to the nature of films as records of history. To witness someone age on screen through the course of his or her career is remarkable for it can remind us of our own mortality. But to see an actor on screen who has not only aged but cinema has aged with him or her is truly something extraordinary. Films have the unique ability to make such connections with each other; they are not just works of art but pieces of the medium’s own, larger historical fabric. This is evident to a young director like Albert Serra, who is solidifying his status as an international auteur. Louis XIV is a captivating and layered look on history and death and for a veteran like Léaud, whose past work was spent playing a boyish hopeless romantic, this performance is a haunting pièce de résistance. 


The Death of Louis XIV is now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of their retrospective of Jean-Pierre Léaud's career.

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