The Death of Louis XIV Movie
Photo from The Death of Louis XIV Movie

Director:  Albert Serra
Written by: Albert Serra, Thierry Lounas
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leáud, Patrick D’Assumçao, Marc Susini, Irène Silvagni, Bernard Belin, Jacques Henric
Opens: March 31, 2017

Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” will surely come to mind while you’re watching this picture.  The key words:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck…

In other words, life is finite.  Don’t expect your accomplishments as a Great Leader to be carried over to future generations.  In one way, though, the film “The Death of Louis XIV” contradicts this since after all here we are three hundred-two years past the death of France’s Sun King, and we—or at least a special niche of us—are remembering.  What’s more, the way co-writer and director Albert Serra bring Louis XIV to life (and to death) in August 1715, we don’t see a monarch who thinks of himself with glory, but we see, rather, a king with gangrene in his foot thinking more about a doctor’s opinion to amputate the leg, and we see a king who would gladly give up the throne if he could swallow food, drink Alicante wine, walk without assistance.  Nor does the king, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, appear joyful that he is surrounded by men of the court who watch every move, coaxing him to drink water or broth.

“The Death of King Louis XIV,” then, is of course a commentary on a French king in his last days, but has universal resonance.  It serves as a graphic illustration of how death levels all, and how dying, even at home surrounded by people on a high level, by a doctor (Patrick d’Assumçao), and by a charlatan who tries to make Louis drink an elixir of bull blood, bull sperm and frog fat, really sucks.

Albert Serra, whose résumé includes “Story of My Death” about an aging Casanova who meets with Count Dracula during a visit to Transylvania, goes now for a claustrophobic canvas, with only one outdoor scene of the king’s being pushed on his wheelchair, finding a few moments of joy petting his two loving Borzois.  (The dogs were quarantined from fear that the monarch might catch something from the animals.)

We can consider this film to bookend Robert Rossellini’s “The Rise of Louis XIV, or “La prise de pouvir par Louis XIV,”) complete with political intrigues that would be the envy of Vladimir Putin.  Then, it was Cardinal Mazarin’s opportunity to die, leading Louis to plan to govern as well as rule.  An aside: Paul Ryan and President Trump in our country, our century, felt helpless to convince their own party to pass a new health plan that would put twenty-four million people off the Medicaid rolls. Louis XIV, by contrast, made sure that the peasants were untaxed and the urban poor working and fed.  In August 1715, the doctors and an assembly of gentlemen-in-waiting felt helpless to put vitality back in their roi.

You can’t blame Louis for acting like un enfant gâté.  You would too if you were writhing in pain, your body weighted down with the costumes of the time, and wearing what must be the biggest wig in movie history.  In fact, those of you who are big fans of blockbusters may not quite be attracted to the box office for this one, as it would make Éric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee” look like “The Fast and the Furious.”  This is slow. Its photographer, Jonathan Ricquebourg, must have longed for some exercise breaks or at least a brisk walk outside since he could almost have been sitting and letting the camera do the work by itself.

Yet, consider this: films, like theater and literature, should afford viewers an examination of all aspects of life.  Except for teenagers, who are immortal, viewers can expect to die.  If you want to see what it’s like to pass on at home surrounded by people you know rather than in a hospital, “The Death of Louis XIV” will satisfy your curiosity.  I’m not the only person to think so.  The film was exhibited in sixteen festivals and won eight prestigious awards. The French language is graced with big, bold, English subtitles.

Unrated.  115 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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