Saturday 25 November 2017

On DVD: "The Death of Louis XIV"

The Sun King goes down. Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV arrives bearing both the title and the look of some 18th century canvas reproducing historical events; within these frames, we bear witness to the final hours of the French monarch, presented by candlelight in what often feels like real time. Here, then, is Louis (Jean-Pierre Léaud), confined to his bed in the Palace of Versailles, weighed down as much by his tremendous regal frightwig atop his head as by the gangrene eating into his legs, a ghost of his former glories, attended to, watched over, apparently loved. Although the King clearly exists in an increasing painful state - waking up in a sweat, crying out for water, yelping if anyone so much as approaches his lower extremities - there is a wider kingdom that needs running, a continuity to be found, which is why a pair of engineers end up among the physicians at the foot of the royal bed, soliciting an official thumbs-up for the bridge-building project they've been engaged with. (Their scenes have the look of history's loftiest episode of Dragon's Den.)

This Louis is dressed like a king, proclaims like a king, and remains possessed of a great constitutional power; the issue of Serra's film, however, is this man's physical power, and the question how long he can keep going. A good deal of this curio's grip derives from the fact that at the centre of its every shot there sits Léaud, installed as a living, breathing index of cinema history the minute Truffaut freeze-framed on his then-teenage face at the conclusion of 1959's The 400 Blows. Truffaut watched Léaud grow to maturity in a run of films that took them both up to 1979's Love on the Run, then cut the actor loose, and in recent decades we've watched this performer searching for a great valedictory role: I have unhappy memories of him as the title character of Bertrand Bonello's The Pornographer in 2001, furrowing his brow and wringing his hands at the sorry state of the world. Bonello forced Léaud into a position of abject despair; Serra, by contrast, gives him the royal treatment.

After a brief exterior prologue, Léaud is tucked up in bed, where he has boiled eggs served to him at regular intervals, enjoying the attention of both the king's courtiers and Serra's camera, the privilege of having an entire film composed around him at the grand old age of 72. The set-up, in other words, is simple - one boudoir, captured at a particular, pivotal point - yet Serra slowly comes to expand the film's scope. On a visual level, drawing us deep into these darkened chambers makes the one glimpse Louis gets of the world beyond his barred window count double: this was surely the final look this King got of the France he'd ruled over for (the serendipity!) 72 years. And Serra digs a lot out of those hushed, tentative conversations going on at bedside: the doctors disagreeing over the correct course of treatment, the philosophers gathering to consider the elevating nature of pain, Louis's own counsel to his toddling male heir, steering him towards making peace, not war. The effect is twofold: to evoke a very specific historical episode, but also to show us the passing of a man, one who - for all his material wealth - proved to be finite, fragile flesh-and-blood like any other. Death, here as elsewhere, is seized upon as the great leveller. 

One caveat: this process is very slow, although - as we know the endpoint the second Serra's title appears on screen - there is an obvious value to clinging onto every last moment. (The reward is a contender for the most profound final line spoken inside a cinema this year, uttered not by Louis, but one of his entourage.) The upshot is a film that is serious about such serious matters as history and mortality - where a callow multiplex-filler like Dunkirk is merely sombre at best, oddly evasive at worst - and a truly poignant performance from Léaud, working wonders within that narrow passage wherein the body stops functioning and the light disappears from the eyes, replaced (one would hope) by something like enlightenment. Such transcendent illumination naturally lends itself to the inside of a cinema, or any other darkened room; as The Death of Louis XIV has also been made available on streaming platforms, and now on DVD, however, it can equally be watched while lying on or in bed, in a gesture of fraternity - though you'll have to provide your own boiled eggs, of course.

The Death of Louis XIV is available on DVD through Drakes Avenue Pictures.

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