The Death of Louis XIV promises one thing and slowly, agonisingly delivers upon it. The opening credits play over the king of France being pushed around the palace gardens for the final time, after the title card hits we do not spend even a single second outside his quarters. The king remains in his bed for the next two hours as we witness the slow decline of his health and his ultimate demise. His physicians try their very best to help but it’s the 1600s and well meaning shitheels are still shitheels.
By the time they figure out that those black marks appearing on his leg are gangrenous it’s too late for anything but prayers and the slow managed decline of the noble, great and beloved ruler. This ain’t a film of grandeur and declamations. The man lies in his bed, he loses his appetite, then his energy, then his life. He not even allowed to see his dogs for fear that they’ll worsen his condition. There is no inconsolable widow or estranged son, we do not see the grand mourning of all France.
Death itself is a tragedy, even in the stateliest rooms. So that’s what the film insists on being, two hours of tragedy that just mercilessly assaults you. Jean-Pierre Léaud moaning and weeping beneath blankets as all assistance offers amounts to nothing. There’s an extended sequence here of an attendant trying to feed him sips of water, over and over, it’s maybe five minutes long. Y’all can probably tell if you’re gonna like the film, just thinking about some parts of it make me all tearful.
Albert Serra says that the film is based on the accounts of the physicians attending the king over his final weeks. Makes me wanna compare it to the other legendary film about the death of a French icon, Carl T. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. They’d make for a grim double feature, but where Dreyer’s flick finds meaning in death (think about the construction of the Passion play) Serra chooses to depict how death destroys it, how the enormity of it shrinks out lives down until there can be no purpose in our movements. It a very humanist film in that way.
Aside from the difference in perspective the joints share a lot in common: both are immaculately composed, Jesus the work of cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg here is amazing. His images glow so fierce and beautiful off the screen, the bed swathed in red velvet blankets, drapes that appear to swallow the figure of Louis who’s already having to contend with one of those massive fluffy wigs all the time. But beneath all that is Jean-Pierre Léaud whose performance is this thing of beauty, it’s studied and measured and oh so generous.
It’s the pain that gets to me I think, it’s hard to approach the film from any other angle, try to avoid the demon that resides at the centre of it. We get enough at the beginning to understand the life as it was lived, we see the king’s life as a public object, he is entertaining his subjects an audience enters to watch him eat a breakfast that he is barely able to swallow, the duke of York badgers him about the funding for a bridge. This is a dude who has lived his life performatively and now his final moments must be held in private, the life that he gave up for his subjects is finally forced upon him at the time where he is unable to do anything.
There’s the staff about too Patrick d’Assumçao is the royal physician, caring but well out of his depth, he remarks that the king has fallen ill before but has always gotten better, he’s now finding new fear in his powerlessness. Marc Susini is the valet and don’t tend to say as much but Serra deploys him with precision, he’s always there, he seemingly knows everything and is quietly breaking.
It’s all too much. And at the end he dies. We all do.
Don’t need a film to remind me of that, but if anyone does you know what to recommend. They’ll probably hate it.
The Death of Louie XIV is currently screening in UK cinemas.