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, who embodied 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.