Reviewed By Lauren Humphries-Brooks (Part of coverage of the New York International Film Festival)
During the press conference following the NYFF press screening of The Death of Louis XIV, actor Jean-Pierre Léaud quoted Jean Cocteau: “Cinema is the only art that can capture death at work.” In that single quotation from one of cinema’s finest directors who dealt with the personification and visibility of death, Léaud summed up what makes The Death of Louis XIV so profound and moving a work of art. It is fundamentally suited to its medium. It draws the viewer close to the action and emotion of death – the death not only of a king and an icon, but of a man.
The Death of Louis XIV chronicles the final fifteen days of the life of the French King Louis XIV (Léaud). Most of the action takes place in the monarch’s bedroom; doctors, valets, courtiers, and the occasional family member surround the ill King as he lives out his last days in pain. As the doctors try and fail to cure the King of a progressive illness – it was actually gangrene – Louis continues to try to govern his kingdom from his bed, at one point offering advice on the monarchy to his five year old great-grandson, the future Louis XV. There are hints of the broader political machinations occurring elsewhere in the Palace as it becomes clear that Louis will die, but the film’s focus remains on the body and soul of a dying man.
Louis XIV presided over France for 72 years and his death marked the end of a major epoch in European history, in many ways presaging the eventual Revolution to come. Louis’s death is not turned into a scene of fanfare or high melodrama; it is a great man slowly going into decline, attempting to retain the dignity of his office even as his body fails him. New doctors are called in to try and arrest the progress of his illness; blame for his decline shifts from person to person; emotions are controlled yet always present. The pain of his death becomes repetitive as doctors encourage him to eat and drink, or as he attempts to carry on his monarchical functions. Far from boring, this repetition emphasizes the reality of the King’s death, making it less the death of a symbol and more the death of a human being.
Director Albert Serra treats of the drama of death with wonderful complexity and gentleness. Though his camera is unflinching, pulling in close to lined faces, lank hair, and dark, sunken eyes, there is never a sense of the voyeur. The dialogue is minimal, and when spoken is spoken slowly, quietly, as though speech itself takes precious minutes from the dying King. While Louis’s suffering occupies much of the film, one does not come away feeling as though the agony has been dwelt on too long. Subdued lighting casts the King’s bedroom into a richness of light and shadow, the border between life and death. Louis is not divine, but richly human, and in this lies his divinity.
Jean-Pierre Léaud’s performance is nothing short of spectacular. Few actors can hold a camera the way that Léaud does, sometimes for long minutes that carry with them a richness and a mystery that becomes almost uncomfortable. This is a man that we can watch grow up on the screen, from his first appearance in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, to his later work with Godard and now with Serra. As we’ve watched him grow, so do we watch him die, faithfully chronicling his movement from child to old man. It is a life lived across cinema, and is chronicled in a way that only cinema can.
As Léaud would have it, The Death of Louis XIV is a supremely cinematic film. It is an argument for the profound humanity of the medium, for the depths and the tenderness with which even the most painful moments of existence can be examined. Though at times difficult to watch, it nevertheless should be experienced by all lovers of film. Death has never been rendered with such tenderness.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)