“From the moment that Albert Serra asked me to act in this film, and that I was in a position where I was being filmed with three cameras in one particular location, I became trapped within an experience that almost simultaneously was the experience of my own death,” Jean-Pierre Léaud said of Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV (2016). “It illustrates the quote from Jean Cocteau: ‘Cinema is the only art that can capture death at work.'”
The film, which is based on the memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon and other historical documents, takes place in the year 1715. Louis XIV (Léaud), now seventy-six, has been the king of France since age four — meaning that the vast majority of his subjects have never known a time when someone else was on the throne. That would be significant enough if he were a mere figurehead, but Louis, nicknamed the Sun King, is an absolute monarch, a figure of enormous power. Thus, when a pain in his leg confines him to bed and subsequently develops into gangrene, it’s a potential crisis for the entire country, and a definite crisis for the doctors charged with curing his illness.
Whereas another movie on the same subject might take a broader view of politics, society and the possible repercussions of the king’s impending demise, The Death of Louis XIV confines itself to a much smaller sphere; in fact, after the brief opening scene that depicts the still relatively healthy Louis being pushed through his garden in a wheelchair, it takes place almost entirely in his bedroom. The business of state does play a role, but it becomes increasingly marginalized as the film progresses and the king’s health deteriorates. Early on, for example, when he’s presented with a proposal to bolster the country’s coastal defenses, he’s able to listen thoughtfully, though he’s not prepared to authorize payment yet; later, when the subject arises again, he can only lie on his bed and gaze blankly into space, unresponsive, seemingly oblivious to the words being spoken to him.
Death, in Louis’s case, is a drawn-out process. Notably, the film was first conceived as a live exhibit for Paris’s Centre Georges Pompidou, with Léaud as Louis lying on a bed in a suspended glass cage for fifteen days. After that plan fell through, Serra decided to turn the idea into a short film, which eventually evolved into a feature running close to two hours. The increased length gives it an advantage over the would-be short by allowing for a more complete portrayal of both the king’s decline and its effects on the people around him.
Despite the fact that the film often looks like a painting — chiaroscuro, candlelit, full of rich reds and golds — there’s nothing picturesque or romantic about the situation. While the king suffers, his attendants fret and quibble; valet Blouin (Marc Susini) and physician Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao), for instance, disagree about his diet, about whether he should be allowed to have a caged bird (an apt analogue for Louis himself) near his bed, each man believing that he knows what’s best. Eventually, they run out of answers. They bring in additional doctors from the Sorbonne and even turn to a quack named Le Brun (Vicenç Altaió) who presents the king with an elixir composed of bull’s sperm, bull’s blood and frog fat. The others scoff at his outmoded methods — they have modern science, like a box of glass eyeballs that they can compare to the king’s eyes in order to determine what remedy to administer — but that doesn’t stop them from giving the elixir another try. “His expression is more lively,” one of them remarks as Louis lies before him, looking as if he’s been dead for days.
Ironically, deferential though they are toward the king, they ignore his wishes when, in a moment of overwhelming pain, he tells them to amputate his gangrenous foot — an act that might save his life. “Sire, do not be afflicted of a vain mutilation,” they tell him. Perhaps they simply want to avoid a drastic, potentially dangerous operation if other options are available, but it’s not difficult to see a deeper, symbolic meaning in this: The body of the king is the body of the state, so it must be preserved at all costs.
Still, it’s also the body of a mortal man, albeit a mortal man in an extraordinary position. Louis can be an absurd figure, with his extravagant wigs and his petulance (he’ll only drink water if it’s served by his valet in a crystal glass) and his stubborn insistence on doing what he wants, regardless of his physical weakness. It’s no wonder that he behaves this way, considering that he’s been treated like a demigod throughout his life — this man who receives applause from an assembled crowd when he manages to eat an egg. On the other hand, his many decades in power have given him valuable experience and the wisdom that goes along with that, as seen when he counsels his great-grandson (Aksil Meznad), soon to become Louis XV. He tells the five-year-old to make peace with his neighbors, to give back to God and to console his subjects — fine advice, although the viewer, unlike the king, is undoubtedly aware that the French monarchy will be violently overthrown before the century is over.
Louis XIV will be long dead by that point, an emblem of a bygone era. As such, it’s fitting that he’s played by Léaud, one of the most iconic actors of the French New Wave. The fact that he’s cast as a dying septuagenarian is all the more significant because he had his first major acting success at the young age of fourteen, starring in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) as the director’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel — still his best-known role. (He was seventy-one during the filming of The Death of Louis XIV.) “It’s incredible for me to overlay the little boy from The 400 Blows with this old man agonizing over death. I’ve always enjoyed an immense pleasure from performing. I went through all these ages. I don’t deny or reject any of it,” said Léaud, who’s grown up and grown old onscreen over the course of nearly six decades. Cinema as death at work, indeed — in more ways than one.
Cronk, Jordan. “Cannes Interview: Albert Serra.” Film Comment 22 May 2016. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/cannes-interview-albert-serra/
Kohn, Eric. “Jean-Pierre Léaud Speaks: How a Cinematic Icon Nearly Killed Himself for His Best Role Since ‘The 400 Blows.'” Indiewire 31 March 2017. http://www.indiewire.com/2017/03/jean-pierre-leaud-interview-the-death-of-louis-xiv-the-400-blows-1201799294/
Léaud, Jean-Pierre. Interview. 54th New York Film Festival. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USDfTbhZ9E8
Regnier, Isabelle. “Le soleil noir du roi Léaud.” Le Monde 2 November 2015. http://www.lemonde.fr/cinema/visuel/2015/11/02/le-soleil-noir-du-roi-leaud_4801491_3476.html
This post is part of the Now (and Then) Blogathon, hosted by Thoughts All Sorts (and Realweegiemidget Reviews). Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts, and click here to see my post on an earlier Jean-Pierre Léaud film.