Śmierć Ludwika XIV / La Mort de Louis XIV
France, Spain, Portugal 2016 / 115’
director: Albert Serra
screenplay: Albert Serra, Thierry Lounas
cinematography: Jonathan Ricquebourg
editing: Ariadna Ribas, Artur Tort, Albert Serra
cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick d'Assumçao, Irène Silvagni, Bernard Belin, Marc Susini
producer: Thierry Lounas, Joaquim Sapinho, Claire Bonnefoy, Montse Triola
production: Capricci Films, Andergraun Films, Rosa Filmes, Bobi Lux
awards: Jerusalem Film Festival 2016 - Best International Feature; Prix Jean Vigo 2016 - Feature Film
Polish distributor: Stowarzyszenie Nowe Horyzonty
release date: March 3, 2017
The King is dead, long live Jean-Pierre Léaud! Following screenings at Cannes of The Last Days of Louis XIV, critics wrote that this was the role of a lifetime for one of the iconic actors of the French New Wave, who received a lifetime achievement award in Cannes. His face, which matured right along with each subsequent film by Truffaut, Godard, Eustache, Tsai, becomes motionless in Serra's film, fading and dying in a purple-and-gold fabric, wrapped in an absurd sheepskin wig. Serra shuns naturalism, focusing instead on the contrast between the immobilization of the patient and his inescapably progressive disease, between the body that is starting to decompose and attempts to maintain some semblance of regal taste during the ritual. He creates scenes inspired by 17th-century painting, filled with whispering servants and warm candlelight. The screenplay, based on medical reports and the memoirs of Saint-Simon, deals with the last days of the Sun King, dying of gangrene in the presence of helpless doctors. As usual with Serra, one of the leading neo-modernists in European cinema, the historical context is just a pretext for telling a story, in the spirit of Bresson's "pure cinema," about universal aspects of human life.
A Catalonian director and producer, was born in Banyoles in 1975. He studied Spanish and Comparative Philology at the University of Barcelona. His second film, Quixotic/Honor de Cavelleria, a loose adaptation of the story of Don Quixote, appeared in the section Quinzaine des Réalisateurs at Cannes in 2006. Serra’s second film of 2008, Birdsong, found itself in the program Un Certain Regard, a prestigious section of the Cannes festival, and it was also recognized as the best Catalonian film of the year.
2006 Honor rycerza / Honor de cavallería / Honor of the Knights
2008 Śpiew ptaków / El cant dels ocells / Birdsong
2010 Els noms de Crist / The Names of Christ
2013 Historia mojej śmierci / Història de la meva mort / The Story of My Death
The more metaphorical meanings of Serra's work will no-doubt please art house aficionados but what makes the film accessible is what's actually onscreen. First, there is Leaud's regal performance. Though it still takes a little effort to see the actor's now leathery countenance without flashing back to his fresh-faced appearance as a 14-year-old in the most famous freeze-frame in cinema history, he does disappear into the role quite quickly. He's dignified one moment, imperious the next - in one scene, he seems to prefer to choke rather than drink water from a glass that's not actually crystal - and increasingly feeble and febrile. As befits a king, he commands attention even when he's physically a wreck. Appropriately, all others around him are just satellites, deriving their importance and right to be there from his will and power, though they do remain behind and Serra has a deliciously ironic last line in store for one of the supporting characters.
Second, the film simply looks stunning. Unlike the anachronistic, mannerist or intentionally somewhat barren production design of some his previous features, Serra here opts for a painterly approach that combines a certain realism (if also an enormous opulence) in costumes, wigs and furniture with a rich, painterly look full of flickering candles and enveloping shadows. The light is literally dying in Jonathan Ricquebourg's richly textured cinematography, while Sebastian Vogler's production design is an impressively coordinated assembly of red and gold velvets, silks and brocades that, despite being no doubt the most luxurious in the kingdom, do nothing to alleviate the ruler's pain. The extravagant wigs, which flank Louis's increasingly hollow features, are similarly overflowing in an unnatural way that contrasts with the banality and nakedness of the person slowly dying underneath them.
If Rossellini's film ["The Taking of Power by Louis XIV"]was an intelligent chronicle of political calculation, in which the young Louis showed a shrewd recognition of the importance of symbolism in accruing power and used gaudiness as a tool for wooing a jealous aristocracy, "The Death of Louis XIV" depicts the endurance of such protocols at the end of his reign. The members of Louis' retinue, far more used to politicking than to confronting mortality, do their best to save face, unwilling to admit helplessness or ignorance at the prospect of the king's inevitable death. Yet if that makes "The Death of Louis XIV" sound like a slog, the vividness of the realization - with a sound design that emphasizes every chew and tick of the clock - makes the movie continually engrossing. Not only are the sets and costumes appropriately flamboyant on what had to be a low budget, but the camera work in the king's dimly lit room also makes an excellent case for digital's dexterity with low-light shooting.
In a kind of shooting diary for [The Death of Louis XIV, referred to here as Last Days of Louis XIV], which Vicenç Altaió published in a Catalan cultural supplement, the poet and Albert Serra's favorite non-actor highlighted the lack of chaos, anarchy and spontaneity that had been commonplace on the shoots of his previous films. His usual style of cinema, which claws its way out of the visceral inner depths, and in which the cinematography takes a back seat, instead foregrounding the interplay between capricious fate and the intoxicated state of his non-professional cast, is quite different to the one we find in Last Days of Louis XIV, where the scenes tend to be shared by actors who do not act, and non-actors who do. The sixth feature by the Spanish director… is a unique gem in his filmography: a real collector's item that shuns any analogy with his previous works because, after passing through the laboratory that is the editing room, Serra has found a harmonious balance between the cautious refinement of Capricci Films, and the ferocious and rebellious spirit of Andergraun Films.
There are still traces of the intense heron-like young man that Léaud was in the 60s and 70s, in films such as Rivette's Out 1 and the later episodes of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel cycle. But there's more of the ruined splendour of the eccentrics that Léaud played for directors such as Aki Kaurismäki (I Hired a Contract Killer) and Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep). The intensity of his gaze, here somewhat fogged and inscrutable, is nevertheless felt to powerful effect in a long take near the end of the film, just the king gazing silently at length - an image that some critics in Cannes compared to the closing freeze-frame of The 400 Blows, as if to complete the circle of Léaud's career…. There's a lot more to say about this strange, haunting film and about Léaud's performance, but for now it struck me as a modest yet profound contemplation of mortality and history, and perhaps the most beautiful film seen in Cannes this year.
Closer to Serra's original intent, Louis XIV is also a film that is dialectically concerned with delusions of progress and the necessity of breaking away from history's cyclicality. Louis' death occurred on the limbs of the Scientific Renaissance and at the end of a string of major wars, and Serra stages this epochal shift to emphasize both the conflict between medicine and superstition and this moment of precarious tranquility, coasting on the promise of a looming era of peace. (One of the film's highlights involves Louis saying goodbye to the grandson who will replace him on the throne, urging the boy not to imitate his love of architecture and war, but to please be nice to his neighbours.) History was and is an erratically evolving thing, and it developed blindly; Serra's is that rare film that realizes this, placing more concern on the moment's uncertainties and possible directions and less on the outcome that we know played out.
Serra more than anything else highlights the banality of death - just how ordinary it all feels, even the death of a person who literally changed the world in significant ways. There is still the broth to be eaten which spills down the chin, the child-like screams in the night, the stink of a decaying body. One feels as if Serra is calling forth the ghost of Gustave Flaubert's disillusioned heroine, Madame Bovary, who also found death utterly inglorious, unromantic, and unedifying.
In its prolonged and repetitive sequences of eating, drinking, staring into space, perspiring, praying (the preceding list truly captures all the significant incident in the film), the film betrays its roots. Originally conceived as an art installation, it was supposed to be a 15-day display with actors behind a glass screen enacting continuously pretty much what you see on screen. The repetition makes for an unnerving viewing experience and many will find the film very boring and their eyes glazing over as they doze off, or their mind starting to wander to all sorts of other things. But this is in a way part of the point, and it is Serra's skill which will put you in the frame of mind of Louis XIV in his final moments - time feels like it's come to a stop and minutes, days, weeks become one giant blur.
Albert Serra: The idea of absolute power combined with a state of total physical helplessness was very attractive. It's also a kind of little revenge that we artists can take in front of the powerful: to show them that, facing death, we are all the same. I also wanted to escape the cliché that a palace runs like clockwork. He calls for water and they take forever to tend to him, for example. It was his sunset but that of the system surrounding him as well.
About the sense of humour: irony is very present in my filmography, even in subjects like death. Jean-Pierre Léaud's performance worked in that sense too. He was very original in the way he played with his own persona and that of his character.
Albert Serra: 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, etc. 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.
Did you base the film on any specific texts?
Albert Serra: Yes, on the memoirs of Saint-Simon, a very important French writer of the time. These were what I like best, but we also did further research and looked at some other historical texts. The film is very faithful to history. But there is also some poetic license, because otherwise the film wouldn't feel present. One idea behind the film is the idea of living the present through the past. Not living the past through memory. I'm respectful with the past and with the story. But then again, I am an artist.