Monday January 9, 2017, 24:00
La Mort de Louis XIV (The Death of Louis XIV), 2016, France/Portugal/Spain, 115 min.
Director: Albert Serra
Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV is an exquisite meditation on death, dignity and voyeurism that unfurls like a baroque tapestry. Visionary Catalan filmmaker and artist Albert Serra is contemporary cinema’s master historicist. With iconoclastic fervor, he has previously radically transformed classic texts from Cervantes and the Bible, and memorably staged an enigmatic encounter between Casanova and Dracula. The Death of Louis XIV is Serra’s masterpiece to date—a momentous work starring nouvelle vague legend Jean-Pierre Léaud as the expiring Sun King.
Rapturously monumental with its crimson brocades and crystalline dishware refracting a gleaming, auburn light, The Death of Louis XIV is an entrancing, candlelit period piece that takes place in Louis’ Versailles bedchamber in August 1715, as the king suffers through stages of progressive gangrene. Before an anxious audience comprised of a cortege of servants and doctors, the monarch’s death transpires like theatre, his every effort scrutinized by his spectators for signs of an unlikely recovery.
The Death of Louis XIV was shot with three cameras in widescreen compositions that emulate the shape of the ruler’s bed, drawing upon literary references for historical accuracy, including Saint-Simon’s memoirs, while invoking artistic representations of the monarch, from the king’s personal portraitist to Roberto Rossellini. Léaud gives one of the finest performances of his career, his prolonged onscreen demise made all the more moving by memories of his mythical first role as the young Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). With its big wigs, pathos and its contrasting allures of medicine and magic, Serra’s paradoxical portrait of suffering offers ample metaphors for the turmoil of our times, yet ultimately reveals death to be the greatest performance of all.
—Andréa Picard, film curator and writer