Spanish director Albert Serra’s telling of the final weeks of Louis XIV is a remarkable insight into the longest reigning monarch in France’s history. Adapted from contemporary memoirs, Jean-Pierre Léaud, (who was thrust into the French cinema scene, courtesy of his work with François Truffaut, after appearing in Truffaut’s first feature,The 400 Blows), lends his cult status to Serra’s re-telling and takes on the ambitious role of the waning Sun King.
As the King slowly succumbs to gangrene, his valets, doctors and members of the court surround him as he continues to fulfil duties in order to keep up the pretence to the public that he is in good health. His condition worsens over the coming days until he falls into a coma and dies.
The film feels like it spans a wealth of dead time, and at first glance could be perceived as a somewhat long-winded and arduous journey for the viewer. What the film lacks in a substantive storyline however, it makes up for in a fair and realistic portrayal of a dying man. A king, reduced to the level of everyone else in the end. Despite the odd flourishes you’d expect: (a delivery, of what can only be described as a tiny silver carousel of eggs for breakfast), Serra has reduced the drama of dying to its most real state. The anguish is controlled and isn’t feigned, but instead remains a true representation of the solitude, grief and pain of death.
What Serra does is strip down the scenes to their bare essentials. Deliberately paced, the soundtrack is minimal, the only audio, excluding dialogue, is that of the outside world: crickets signifying dusk, birdsong bringing in the day. With a film entirely set in a single room, these small details help indicate the passing of time.
At nearly two hours, a film so restrained and minimally charged risks outstaying its welcome. The drama of each scene has been diluted, and is almost non-existent. Serra has succeeded in reimagining a seemingly authentic account of Louis XIV’s final days. However, those less patient may find themselves struggling to reach the end of this journey. But viewers that persist are rewarded with a thoughtful and meticulous film, complete with rich colours, understated but solid performances and something that resembles both cinema and the stillness and opulence of a neoclassical painting.
Serra wanted The Death of Louis XIV to get into the very bones of a monarchy awaiting the death of a King. His humanistic approach challenges any pre-conceived ideas one may have of the subject, bringing him to his most banal and human state as he suffers and eventually takes his final breath. Behind the film’s “it does what it says on the tin” title (a title, much like the film: completely stripped of any drama or embellishment) lies a much more poignant and accessible story; that of death itself, its relentless pursuit and its ability to make us all equal in the end.
The Death of Louis XIV is released on July 14th.