Deep vermillion décor, the ticking of the clock, and the flickering of candlelight define the space in which Albert Serra's La mort de Louis XIV [AKA The Death of Louis XIV] (2016) is set. This location is integral to the film, as it embodies everywhere that our protagonist cannot go. Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Louis XIV, who can no longer walk due to severe leg pain that remains undiagnosed until much later in the film. These are the final days in the life of the King of France, and they're presented with an honesty that is a product of the film's resistance to a plot. La mort de Louis XIV is not a film about sympathy, or even empathy, but rather a film about the formalities of a natural death in the most formal of settings.
The film opens with a black screen as the sound of nature fades in. Jean-Pierre Léaud's name appears on screen, and we can see through the text of his name the flowers of the garden in the first scene. Through the window of the text, we see a glimpse of something greater, and that speaks to the nature of Albert Serra's film as a whole. This is the only scene in which the perspective of the film is outdoors, as the King's health begins to quickly deteriorate. Pushed in a wheelchair through the garden, Louis XIV is grand in his old age. The brown, curly hair of his wig goes past his shoulders, and the setting sun compliments the artificial youth on display.
Following this introduction, King Louis XIV is now bedridden, and will remain almost exclusively in a reclined position for the remainder of the film. Still, he is rarely alone – as his personal valet and other servants care for him as his condition worsens. La mort de Louis XIV is a death procedural, and since the film takes place in 1715, it's death the old-fashioned way. Even kings suffer and wallow in misery as they await the end.
There are no soliloquies, dialogues concerning the finality of death, or anything that is specifically designed to draw out an emotional response, and yet Jean-Pierre Léaud's mere presence on screen is endearing. Even at the age of 71 (when this film was shot), his youthful charm has not escaped him, and yet we observe the final remnants of the King's charm fade away over the course of the film. Balancing the theatricality of a leader who wants to be heard with the subtlety of a man who knows that death is upon him, Léaud's performance brings him from grunting and wailing in pain for the sake of attention, to staring into the camera in silence with almost every muscle in his face trembling out of fear, bitterness, and anger all at once.
Albert Serra's eye for composition and knack for pacing that he exhibited in his previous film, Story of My Death (2013), is on full display here. Static compositions heighten Louis XIV's own immobility, and the duration of each shot expresses a painterly quality. Truly composed, every shot is vital to the narrative and defines the mise-en-scène – many of which feature servants entering and exiting the frame whilst Louis XIV remains stationary. Alluding to Mantegna's painting Lamentation of Christ (1480), Serra's camera looks from Louis XIV's bare feet with a deep focus so that his face can be seen as well. Gangrene, in its early stages, leaves a black mark resembling a hole in his foot, like that of the holes in Christ's feet after the crucifixion.
Integral to the aesthetic of La mort de Louis XIV is the previously mentioned deep focus, which allows for every detail within the frame to actively be important to the milieu of royalty. For such a confined setting, it would be easy for Serra to choose to focus on the people alone, but the setting is a character in itself. The space Louis XIV inhabits is all he has to focus upon while he's not resting, so we're fully aware of the details within the room, as we would be when looking at the details in a painting by Diego Velázquez. Beyond the details of the location, the ability to have people in the foreground in focus while people in the background are as well further unites the shared space. Once the spots of gangrene are discovered, visits from priests and doctors become more frequent, and the Rembrandt-like staging of these physicians is cohesive with the previously established aesthetic of this well-crafted film.
It is easy for one to imagine Jean-Pierre Léaud as the flirtatious Antoine Doinel in Truffaut's Bed and Board (1970) or the playful young man in Rivette's Out 1, Noli me tangere (1971), but that's part of what makes La mort de Louis XIV so successful as a film. The absence of that joy Léaud exuded as a young man is palpable, and yet familiarity with his previous work is not necessary to feel that we're seeing the King in his worst state (as that is readily accessible on the screen). It's the moments when Léaud's youthful wonder briefly resurfaces that the King becomes more than just a dying leader, but a genuine person who isn't too great for simple pleasures – like man's best friend: dogs. As meticulously designed as this intimate film is, Albert Serra manages to depict death as a natural part of life – devoid of cinematic melodrama, yet with room for theatricality associated with the formalities of royalty. These royal formalities are often enacted as routine, but death is the universal routine that Serra brings to the foreground, resulting in an elegant film with far more value than just another period piece.
My rating: 4.5/5