The Death of Louis XIV is a counter-cultural film; counter-cultural in the truest sense in that it stands in opposition to the dominant contemporary culture and its ideologies. That dominant culture is the twins or kissing cousins of the 24-hour news cycle and the American television/streaming serial drama which equally treat death as a narrative convenience, a tool used with a tight little smirk to keep the audience engaged through the most emotionally manipulative means (the unspoken but ever-present advertising line of every modern serial drama with the exception of the more consciously moral and intellectual efforts of David Simon, David Lynch etc. is “which of your favourite characters will die this week?!”, just as with the 24-hours news cycle the invisible advertising line is “where is the next major tragedy happening?!”) while treating mortality and its current victims as the most disposable matter, shedding it and them of all but the flimsiest import in its ever onwards march in search of the next victim.
Albert Serra’s mission in this film is to bring back the full import of mortality, to show it to us in excruciating detail (for the film is highly elliptical but has a feeling of absolute completeness) and in a sort of isolation so that we can begin again to understand the very physical and spiritual meaning and impact of death, it’s overwhelming presence in all moments and the mixture of complete knowledge and unfathomability which accompanies it.
To accomplish this Serra has the film exist in a sort of continual suspension, a suspension mirrored by the experience of the characters and the audience; Serra’s control of his slow and steady pace is so complete that he seems to take control over time itself and one feels that the film, upon its ending, has lasted anywhere from thirty minutes to six hours. The death process must be felt, not reduced to an instantaneous gesture (a sudden moment of demise to be reacted to) but shown for the often lengthy and wrenching process it is, a process that seems to alter the flow and feeling of time, to be almost transforming and transfigurative.
This slowing, stopping, floating allows for Serra’s camera to operate with an almost-invasive intimacy at all moments, to linger over the physical decay and pain of the king, to offer to us a catalogue of gestures and emotions caught fleetingly in the bodies and faces of his advisors, carers and doctors. Serra wants us to feel that we have seen all, that neither us as an audience or him as a film-maker and thinker have been compromised by looking away, refusing again to confront, refusing knowledge of what awaits all of us as humans, denying the ungraspable and immense implications of, and clearly visible physical and affective realities, of mortality. He attempts to return us, as much as possible within this form, to a state of great knowledge and great feeling, for it is only with this that we can realise how much we have been sold out by the mediocre serial television drama’s ease with the act of killing, this degrading attitude which spells trouble for those victims of unjust death in our reality who long for remembrance, who desire to not be treated with a disposability learnt from the catastrophic-event-driven storytelling and card-shuffling casualness of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.
One could perhaps argue that Serra is compromised by a certain aestheticisation of this process, an aesthetication that brings him closer to Pontecorvo than Resnais or Mizoguchi (to return to Serge Daney’s The Tracking Shot in Kapo). But this would be a misunderstanding; the aestheticiation not only is a reflection of an integral part of this most self-consciously decorative king’s mindset and environment, but an attempt to reach the ominous awareness and disquieting presence of the void (i.e. the overwhelming unfathomable) that haunts some of the work of the (roughly defined) period’s great masters of art and which has been eradicated from much of contemporary visual culture. These masters are consciously and consistently alluded to by Serra and they exert their influence in colour, lighting and composition upon nearly every frame of the film. Rich reds mix with faded golds, glowing luminescence attempts to reach the resistant ink black cobwebbed corners of rooms and cold faces crowd around the pallid splendour of Louis as in Rembrandt’s famous anatomy lesson (painted, one must confess, during Louis’ father’s reign, but it’s ghost still lives in these new images).
The choice of the Sun King is not a hat-tipping to monarchy or a carefree choice either; instead it is simply an effort to assert for us, from the very beginning of the film, every inch of the importance of what we are in the process of seeing. When the odds or the opposition against which one is fighting are so strong one must sometimes take a short-cut or two, admit that choosing a famous and important man may help one arrive at their crucial point more quickly (and time is of the essence) than if one was to rely upon an ordinary man.
I have said little of Jean-Pierre Leaud, and now I must stop my possibly hoary and tenuous theorising to do so; very few actors are as important to me, on a very personal level, as Leaud. Off-hand I can think only of Louis Garrel (the self-concious heir to Leaud, and I believe Leaud’s own godson, and an actor’s whose listing here perhaps suggests a liking for a certain type on my part) and Robert Mitchum who had such a large and formative influence on me during my adolescence. It’s fair to say that for all my longing then to have something of Mitchum’s sleepy fatalistic stoicism about myself I felt I was closer to Leaud’s young characters, to his manic and vulnerable energy, his angularity, his alternately romantic and painful alienation. To see Leaud here, in his old age playing a man on his death bed, was moving; at times I would barely recognise my youthful idol, and at others an impish look in the eye or an unpredictable and sharp gesture could belong to no-one else. In that great moment, surely to be the most remembered in the film, when Serra has Leaud stare into the camera, propped up in bed and scored by music reaching for the heavens, tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I am not the first to see the obvious parallels between this moment and Leaud looking into the camera at the end of The 400 Blows or delivering his lectures and monologues directly at us in Godard’s late 60s work and Rivette’s Out 1, but the identification, the moment of remembrance, the link between past and present, the awareness of time, change, aging, mortality (ours, Leaud’s, the cinema’s) that pours directly out of this passage hits like a torrent, with all the force of a true revelation. It is perhaps a cliché to state at this point that no actor but Leaud would have fulfilled Serra’s mission; a man who seemed to live his whole life under the gaze of the camera, who aged and changed as the modernist cinema he was so central to aged and changed through much of the second half of the last century and the dawning of this one, was essential to find for this project for we must have something strong, young, pure and familiar against which to measure this mortal process, to see fully its (of course created and acted) physical devastations and be able to grasp something of its traumatic effect on memory, remembrance, the link between the past, the present and the future (those three states which seem so often to exist simultaneously in the domain of the cinema and the experience of the viewer). In a sense, as previously suggested, two deaths occur, both them of a figurative sort (as much as they are so physically represented by Serra and so physically felt by the audience); the recreated death of the king, and it’s self-evident implications in regards to wider issues of mortality, lineage, nationhood, societal and political functions etc, and a sort of premonition or recreation-before-the-fact of the eventual death of Leaud, which also carries with it implications in regards to certain histories, epochs, statuses and reckonings of the cinema (or, at least, a significant portion of the great European canon). No wonder we emerge from the film so exhausted, and yet so exhilarated by these great colliding masses of meaning(s).
And Serra cannot resist one final flourish, one final underlining of his point with the final line of the film: “we’ll do better next time” states Louis’ doctor, in reference to the eventual treatment of his heir. This line is a symbol offered to the modern news cycle and the American serial drama, summing up in a few short words its ideology’s entire belief in the disposability, replaceable nature and shallowness of human life and death. With this line a hideous denial and a great vacuity are made clear to us, just as the whole film again offers us the chance to understand, to attempt to come to terms with the process, the meanings, and the realities of our shared fate. The Death of Louis XIV is one of the major works of this decade.