By Jason McBride (Seattle, WA, USA)
As its namesake suggests, The Death of Louis XIV hones in on the final days of France’s Sun King and chronicles his physicians’ attempts to save his life. Louis (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is dying of an unspecified ailment, but as the story progresses, a gangrenous foot clues us in that an infection has taken over his body. I don’t think we need a spoiler alert to tell you the 18th century monarch doesn’t pull through. The problem with The Death of Louis XIV is that, aside from the powdered wigs and the four-poster sick bed, this movie could be called “The Death of Anyone.”
We watch as the king becomes increasingly listless; he refuses food and water while his doctors pace and shake their heads over the hopeless situation. It lacks historical content, but on the other hand, it may be moviedom’s first hospice mockumentary. It’s like director Albert Serra wanted to titillate the French public by giving them the voyeuristic thrill of watching their greatest king wither away without dignity, a sort of secular Passion of the Christ (sorry, no whips). But Louis XIV lives in the realm of minimalist “slow cinema,” so clearly Serra isn’t trying to pull off a traditional, quasi-informative biopic.
It’s an art film, but some subtle signals around political intrigue or familial discord wouldn’t have besmirched its airier aesthetic goals. It’s still about “things,” like the process of dying and 1715’s near total lack of medical treatment (a thin revelation). But again, those things could be about anyone in that era near the end of their life. And unfortunately, lead actor Léaud does little more than sag against his pillows catatonically and push away food with aristocratic daintiness. It’s very convincing, but offers little insight, even the made-up insight of historical dramas. To give credit where it’s due, Serra includes a scene where Louis encourages his son to be a more benevolent ruler than he was, but it comes across as more sentimental (the man is dying, after all) than revealing of any personal evolution.
A subplot where advisers meet the king to request funds for a military operation goes nowhere; it’s so flabby it’s hard to tell if it’s meant to highlight the banality of running a country or if something sinister is going on. It’s tempting to give credit for the costuming and overall production values, which are decent, but unfortunately for every film that takes place during this period, they have to compete with the visual virtuosity of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).
Kubrick famously obtained lenses NASA used to photograph the moon and customized his camera to shoot candlelit scenes without any artificial light and transposed the Dutch Master style from canvas to movie screen. The stunning compositions of Barry Lyndon put anything comparable to shame, including the respectable attempts of Louis XIV. The slow cinema style suits the mood and era, and the ruffles and frills of the costumes make for great historic eye candy, but modest restraint and puffy shirts can’t compete with Kubrick’s brilliance.