a mort de Louis XIV (2016)
Directed by: Albert Serra | 115 minutes | biography, drama, history | Actors: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick d’Assumçao, Marc Susini, Bernard Belin, Irène Silvagni, Vicenç Altaió, Jacques Henric, Alain Lajoinie, Olivier Cadiot, Philippe Crespeau, Alain Reynaud, Richard Plano, Adrian Dunãrintu, Francis Montaulard, José Wallenstein Jacques Bontemps, Gabriel Wanner, Paul Menand, John Baillie, François Bosselut, Filipe Duarte, Clément Censier, Clàudia Robert, Dorian Darfeuille, David Santos, Michaël Mathieu, Romain Cardin
What do Leonardo DiCaprio, Pierce Brosnan, Alan Rickman, Richard Chamberlain, Benoît Magimel and countless other actors have in common (besides their profession)? They all took on the role of the French king Louis the Fourteenth, or Louis XIV (1638-1715). In the French/Spanish/Portuguese production ‘La mort de Louis XIV’, French acting legend Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the role of the sun king. The film is based on ‘Mémoires’ by Louis de Rouvroy, who was in his immediate vicinity during the reign of Louis XIV.
Being so close to the source naturally yields a wealth of information, and that pays off in a fascinating spectacle. That starts with the opening credits, where the letters act as a kind of window to show the events behind it to the viewer. It’s just too subtle to make sense out of it, but it makes you feel like you’re allowed to peep. And that feeling remains. The beautifully framed close-ups, among other things, have created an intimate atmosphere by filmmaker Albert Serra, in which the viewer feels privileged to witness this historic event. However, it is an event that is at the same time as trivial as can be, because after all: everyone dies, even the most striking figures in world politics.
In the first scene – the only one filmed outside – we see the king being brought in after a walk through his entourage. He is ill, but at that moment nobody knows how ill. In the short two film hours that follow, the monarch gets sicker and sicker, until the moment that his personal servants and other members of the royal household also have to admit that there is no way to get better. The king is dying.
That knowledge might make ‘La mort de Louis XIV’ predictable (the title isn’t spoiler-free already), but if you think it’s a boring affair, you’re definitely wrong. The film exudes atmosphere from every pore and although the setting except for that opening scene consists solely of the interior of the king’s bedroom, there is enough going on on and around the deathbed to keep the viewer’s attention. In fact, it will be enchanted by the phenomenal acting of Léaud, who puts on a lifelike performance of a man who dies. And not just any man, but a king, so including short episodes of power and glory – he tries to carry out his duties to the very end – but also tenderness, for example in the scenes where he cuddles with his dogs or his great-grandson insists on being a good monarch. Léaud puts humanity into his playing in such a subtle way that you can’t separate him from the character. A twitch of a muscle in a cheek, gasping for breath, outbursts of anger and frustration… It is a beautiful spectacle to see, supported by the picturesque, but also respectful way in which Serra portrays things.
Where other directors might choose to also show the splendor of Versailles and fragments of the court and how the imminent death of their ruler will affect them, Serra has deliberately chosen to always remain close to the king. In doing so, he reduces the legendary figure to human proportions. ‘La mort de Louis XIV’ makes such an impression that from now on when you talk about King Louis XIV, you will see nothing but the striking face of Jean-Pierre Léaud. And all those other actors can’t change that.