Film Review: The Death of Louis XIV

In association with the French Film Festival

Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s latest work, a drama tinged with a dark sense of morbid humour, chronicles in minute detail the final days of France’s greatest ever monarch; the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Set almost entirely in the dying man’s bedchamber, and filmed in still close ups mostly focused on the face of French new wave star Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the bed-bound king, or on his aides, doctors and servants as they move about him with great care and precision, The Death of Louis XIV could readily be described as a tableau vivant. Perhaps this is appropriate for a historical biography charting the slow succumbing to death of one of the most significant and influential monarchs in western European history, as the stillness of Serra’s film only emphasises how far the once great ruler has fallen. Indeed, this stillness can also be contrasted with other cinematic depictions of the Sun King, including Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV and Roland Joffé’s Vatel, in both of which he is portrayed as ambitious, energetic and full of life.

The dreamlike, quiet visuals of the film are matched by a soundscape at once delicate and rich. Close ups of Léaud’s sickly face are ominously accompanied by the ticking of a clock while wider angled shots play out to the chirping of crickets, and all the while the clinking of glass, sipping of water, tapping of feet and whimpers of the afflicted can be heard with surprising clarity. This constant undercurrent of seemingly trivial noise helps to make the film an engrossing experience for the audience, despite the lack of on screen happenings. Léaud’s star turn is undoubtedly key in this regard; from his reclined, immobile position he gives one of the most emphatic and emotive performances of the year. All in all, The Death of Louis XIV is a masterclass in restrained filmmaking, a refreshing entry into the genre of historical biography, and one of the very best films of the year.

This film will be screening at the GFT on the 20th of November.

[Tim Abrams – @Timabrams123]

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