For nearly all 115 minutes of “The Death of Louis XIV,” the hypnotically grueling new film from the Catalan writer-director Albert Serra, we are peering into a royal bedchamber at 18th century Versailles, watching as France’s longest-ruling monarch slowly succumbs to gangrene at the age of 77.
The room is a ravishment of red brocade, its gleaming surfaces bathed in dim candlelight and slowly lengthening shadows that the cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg captures in exquisitely shot digital images.
But the most remarkable sight here is the Sun King, Louis XIV himself, played in an extraordinary performance by the French film legend Jean-Pierre Léaud. Wearing an enormous gray wig that dwarfs his pallid face and at times gives him the appearance of a curiously overgrown insect, Louis is less a straightforward protagonist than an object of contemplation, his increasingly immobilized body stretched across the lower half of the frame as his condition worsens by the minute.
As the title makes clear, then, this is not a life story but an end-of-life story, though the paradox here is that the king’s life force seems to register all the more acutely, and cruelly, as it is incrementally drained away.
Meticulously drawn from the written accounts of the Duke of Saint-Simon and the Marquis of Dangeau, who were both courtiers present at Louis XIV’s bedside during his final days, Serra’s screenplay (which he co-wrote with Thierry Lounas) reconstructs the king’s death as a grim, claustrophobic procedural, a corporeal epic in which the long, steady takes of the camera seek to capture both the mundanity and the immensity of death.
By the end we seem to have registered every bead of sweat on the king’s brow, every dark spot on his infected leg and every painful, wheezing exhalation that is ripped from his body. But as painstaking as it is in its record of each indignity, “The Death of Louis XIV” also locates an unmistakably dark humor in the rivalries and power struggles, the fluttering reactions and confused protocols playing out in the shadows.
There’s a fascinating disconnect between what we see — a human body preparing to shuffle off this mortal coil — and the collective obsequiousness that greets his every word and spasm.
The king’s physician, Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao), and his valet, Blouin (Marc Susini), clash frequently over the best course of treatment, each trying to gain the upper hand.
Remedies such as bloodletting and bathing in donkey milk are attempted. Doctors from the Sorbonne arrive, as does a quack peddling an elixir of animal fluids. Absurdity reigns for a moment, but there is no delaying the inevitable.
“The Death of Louis XIV” would make an intriguing double bill with Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 film, “The Rise of Louis XIV.” But it is also the most polished and fully realized example yet of Serra’s serenely experimental approach to portraiture, as seen in his earlier films such as “Honor of the Knights” (2007), a riff on Don Quixote, and “Birdsong” (2008), a gorgeous black-and-white retelling of the Three Wise Men.
Like its predecessors, which have been more widely seen at festivals than in art-house theaters, “The Death of Louis XIV” is what some would call an exemplary work of slow cinema and others might call an endurance test. Even if intended dismissively, however, the latter assessment would suggest only that Serra has done his subject justice, transmuting the slow and steady march toward oblivion into an aptly imposing and unyielding work of art.
The film would be a triumph for its casting of Léaud alone. Still best known, perhaps, for his performance as the youthful rebel Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959), the now 73-year-old Léaud has never been far from the screen since, as his myriad collaborations with Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci and Olivier Assayas, among others, can attest.
That makes him something of a kindred spirit to the character he plays here, insofar as he is a long-standing pillar of French cultural royalty, someone who would be hard-pressed to remember a time when he was out of the public eye.
In “The Death of Louis XIV,” Léaud shows us stray glimmers of the droll conversationalist and irrepressible bon vivant the Sun King once must have been. But his performance is finally a magnificent stare into the abyss, a sustained contemplation of things we would rather not dwell upon but will ultimately have to face. He surrenders to the great equalizer that is death and emerges, somehow, looking like an artist newly born.
In French with English subtitles
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The Death of Louis XIV
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Albert Serra
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Patrick d’Assumçao, Mark Susini
Running time: 115 min.