Last week, we “spoke in cinema” one last time at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It was with the cutting-edge Catalan director Albert Serra and “Film Comment” magazine’s dynamo of a new critic Yonca Talu discussing the director’s latest work, The Death of Louis XIV. Before I offer some highlights and a video of the conversation, I’d like to say that I truly hope the cinematheque continues this series somehow, even though funding has run its course. After all, this is a city where film criticism suffered a terrible hit recently as longtime “Miami Herald” film critic Rene Rodriguez was placed on the real estate beat and completely removed from covering any of Miami’s film scene, much less writing film reviews.
It would have been great to have read what Rodriguez would have said about this movie. The Death of Louis XIV is both one of the more challenging films and strongest films this writer has seen so far this year. It breaks from the classical conventions of cinema to move the viewer to something transcendental. It’s the perfect film for an in-depth discussion, as we did last Friday. Early in our discussion, Talu made a keen observation of how Serra pushes the audience away from connecting on an emotional level with Louis XIV, played by the legendary French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, which enhances the distance of the audience’s gaze upon this man’s death thanks to the manner in which Serra approaches editing. “The body is viewed almost like an anatomical specimen,” she said, “both by the camera and the doctors. The camera visually dismembers this body through close-ups and extreme close-ups.”
It was at times a heavy conversation about a heavy film, a movie that makes the audience not just an observer of the Sun King’s demise but also aware of their own mortality. “We all think of our death … as a viewer,” said Serra. “The eyes of Léaud should project our experience as a viewer — of our experience — and then project it to us, not only the dramaturgy of the historical content but also all of our experience because it’s so abstract, but at the same time, it’s not so uncommon to everybody.”
Serra is speaking about one of the key scenes I highlighted in my review (The Death of Louis XIV presents patiently beautiful portrait of death — a film review), toward the end of the film, where Louis XIV pauses to look directly into the camera for an extended period of time. “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.”
There were also moments of levity, including Serra’s recounting of how Léaud undermined him at times, as he psychologically manipulated the other actors, playing on their personal awe of being in the presence of such a cinematic legend, the biggest star Serra has ever worked with. It’s a funny moment worth watching out in the video shot by one of his partners in production. You can watch the entire conversation below (it’s best to watch the movie first), and you may have to pump it up to maximum volume, as it was shot on a mobile phone. MBC will be making a professionally shot version available in its Speaking in Cinema archive for educational purposes.
Both films I hosted during this series dealt with the theme of death (Film Review: Hide Your Smiling Faces presents resonant images of darkness and light of life and death), something I do find myself obsessing a little more than most in my criticism, so it was fitting the cinematheque’s director, Dana Keith, asked me to host both of these events. Again, one hopes this does not truly mark the death of Speaking In Cinema, which began thanks to a Knight Foundation grant. Right now, Keith is focused on his next Knight-funded program, creating a digital, interactive archive of his rich collection of film memorabilia and ephemera. He says he has collected these artifacts since he was a child, which covers every country that has a cinema industry, from Poland to China to Hollywood, across all of the years of encapsulating the history of moving pictures.
The Death of Louis XIV continues its run at MBC through this weekend only (see their calendar). It expands northward, in Broward County, this Friday at the Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood on Friday, May 5. On that night, at Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, there will be a 5 p.m. reception followed by the 6 p.m. showing of the film and a post-screening Q&A with Serra. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s website.