Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s brilliant The Death of Louis XIV immediately establishes what it’s about without a single clear image of a human being. Against a black screen, the credits unfold, as the sound of a birds, insects and the babble of a brook are contrasted against the creaking of wooden wheels. It’s all barely seen through the text, the blackness of oblivion surround the words, whose transparency to the scenery hints at vibrant life and man’s attempt to prolong it via the noise of the pathetic groan of the wheels is revealed to come from two valets pushing around King Louis XIV of France (the legendary Jean-Pierre Léaud) in an archaic wheelchair through a luscious garden. Le Roi Soleil, The Sun King, a man trying to live as much of life as possible, turning a walk among the flowers into a sad kind of joke.
Focusing on the final three weeks of Louis XIV’s life, Serra, who wrote the screenplay with Thierry Lounas and edited the film with Ariadna Ribas and Artur Tort, presents a film capturing the tension between life and death while placing the mundane at the center of existence. The scene that follows features mostly young, laughing and chatting women outside the open door of the king’s bedroom. These people live it up at a feast outside what will be his death chamber. The camera, marvelously helmed by Jonathan Ricquebourg, is focused on the king, and though the revelers are blurred, the vibrant contrast is unmistakable. King Louis, alone, however has his dogs, who messily lap up some food from his hands, as he repeats, “My dogs, I love my dogs.” In between, he affectionately mocks the dogs’ drooling on his hands and their panting, which foreshadows his later challenges of dry mouth and most especially his struggles to breath.
It’s these small observations of the mundane and their place in the grand scheme of life and death that are key to enjoying this film. Serra wants to create realism by presenting the small details in static takes not via stylized cinematic gestures. For instance, his close-ups never feel indulgent. They are there to call attention to perspective and, in this case, how different it is to watch death than experience it. The film’s close-ups capture an intimacy that only go as far as to show the separation between the actors. Clearly, his majesty’s servants and courtesans carry on living, some burdened to care for him, while others pop in briefly to fulfill their duties. The film’s heart and soul lies with the doctor, Mr. Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao), who struggles with treatment for the king’s recovery, and the king’s chief valet, Blouin (Marc Susini), who often challenges Fagon’s logic. However, King Louis remains an enigma. Though hardly a prop (Léaud gives a transcendent performance), he is the representation of the unknowable bridge from living to dying.
The film unfolds quietly and patiently, with mostly diegetic sound. Often dominating the soundtrack is the ticking of an unseen clock, a reminder that King Louis’ time is about to run out. The images are like Renaissance paintings. The detail in the red velvet of the king’s bed and his towering mane of gray look as though they have been rendered with the precision of fine-tipped oil brushes. When death finally arrives, one can’t help but wonder whether you are looking at a painting of the deceased king with the actors superimposed over him.
Despite such beauty in detail, Serra is out to enhance the corporeal, like the sound of the rubbing of herbs on the king’s gangrenous leg. Rough, lived hands scrape on the dying flesh like the transference of a soul. King or pauper, like all of those at this twilight stage, dying is not a clear slope downward. During these three weeks, the king has good and bad days. In one moment, he actually walks without aid from his bed to his wheelchair. Serra is hardly concerned with offering exposition about who this king was in history. The fact that this was a long-ruling, influential king, however, is apparent in this small moment, his dignified posture from bed to wheelchair, chin high while he takes those handful of steps that clearly deplete him to his destination.
Beyond its metaphysical aspects, the film captures how exhausting it is to die, and Léaud, who is now 72 years old, is remarkable. It’s a physical performance that relies less and less on dialogue, as he approaches his end. There is an incredible moment that all of the seeming misery builds toward, where in the face of his last rites, Louis eats a candied delicacy he dips in wine and turns to stare into the camera, a sort of defiance for life as one foot is quite literally in the grave. This is also the only instance of extradiegetic music, Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor. It’s the film’s most classically cinematic moment, and it lasts a long while, ultimately breaking the fourth wall for those especially familiar with this great actor. It’s transporting in the manner that it connects the audience with the persona of the actor who too is near death. Those familiar with the actor’s debut movie, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, may be thrown back to the child actor, now an old man who too is in his twilight years, and that final freeze frame of that iconic film from 1959 that marked the beginning of his career. It’s both personal and shimmeringly cinematic and should ultimately bring many of the audience to think of their time on earth in relation to the present and all that time lived, back to the actor’s debut cinematic glance. After all, like all of us, even the immortal movie star must face death.
Note: I will host the director and film critic Yonca Talu (Film Comment) in a discussion of this film in what is slated to be the final installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series, “Speaking In Cinema” on Friday, April 28, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, after the film’s premiere in South Florida. This will mark the first time Serra has done a Q&A for his award-winning movie in the U.S. For information and tickets visit this link.