The Death of Louis XIV
The life of Jean-Pierre Léaud is one that has been lived on the big screen, an actor that became the face of the French New Wave as a 14-year-old in Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Through his continued work with Truffaut and other European luminaries, cinema has captured his growth from a boy to a man, and he has long since been established as arthouse royalty. So not only is it fitting that his latest role is that of the longest reigning European Monarch but also one that brings his cinematic arc full circle.
The Death of Louis XIV is not as macabre as the title indicates, even though nearly all of our time is spent by the King’s bedside watching him slowly succumb to a mysterious disease. Writer/director Albert Serra plays up the absurdity of protocol that rigidly remains in place despite the Monarch’s deteriorating health. It continues the director’s fascination with viewing historical and mythical figures in unexpected situations, having previously done so with the Three Wise Men, Don Quixote and Dracula and Casanova. While Léaud never moves from his prostrate position, he remains fascinating to watch, even while the only energy he has left enables him to barely take a sip of water.
Doctors prod and poke at his ailing body, unable to figure out what the root of the problem may be. As the dark coloured gangrene marks on his right foot gradually spread to encompass the entire lower calf, a doctor arrives from Marseille proclaiming to hold the elixir that will save the King’s life. A strange concoction of frog fat, distilled brain juice, bull’s sperm, and blood is trickled down Louis’ throat in desperation, despite the other doctor’s uncertainty. The King, who has remained dressed in near full regalia throughout, remains propped up on the pillows with no discernible change to his demeanour. The doctors, meanwhile, convince themselves that he has “perked up” much to their confusion.
Serra’s film is full of that same sort of droll, black humour, surrounding the King with his army of advisers and assistants all silently wringing their hands in despair. The next in-line was his five-year son (yes, you’ve guessed it, Louis XV) and the unspoken thought slowly clouding the room is one of uncertainty as the one who kept them in the comfort of the inner royal circle is dying before their eyes. With the inevitability of death drawing ever nearer and religious figures returning to the chamber with increasing frequency, they steadfastly refuse to face up to the grim reality, choosing to believe their leader will soon be back on his feet.
Through long patient takes, each frame appears like that of an Old Master, painted with the finest of details. The low glow of the flickering candles barely offer enough light, pulling us in closer to this intimate scene of bodily decay. Léaud's performance is one composed of almost complete stillness and yet even the slightest grumble or flicker of life is as majestic as the moments when his life is ebbing away. And what does it all mean? Well, that's for us to decide ourselves but rarely has death looked so beautiful.