On August 9th 1715, the Sun King, Europe's longest reigning monarch, returned from a hunt pushed over rough terrain in a wheelchair. It would be the last time he would be outside. Complaining of pain in his leg, the King of France continued his duties, hobbling about, propped up on either side. After one last court reception laying supine in all his finery, the king would take to his bed, surrounded by doctors and courtiers all awaiting "The Death of Louis XIV."
That the first title credit we see is 'Avec Jean-Pierre Léaud' is a testament to the magnificent performance at this film's center. Léaud, François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel in "The 400 Blows" and subsequent films, creates a king who goes from childish delight to remorseful wisdom to painful decay, always on view yet always separate from those who serve him. Spanish cowriter (with Thierry Lounas)/director Albert Serra's ("Story of My Death") film is a sumptuous vision for the eye, lit like a Rembrandt, Léaud the picture of corporeal decay cushioned in rich burgundies. For 120 minutes we observe the decline and death of a king and every minute is utterly fascinating.
One of the most interesting ideas Serra puts across is the virtual public imprisonment of its head of state. Louis's life and death are on display like an 18th century reality show that can only be viewed by those who've curried favor (like a membership at Mar-a-Lago). During his last reception, Louis plays with his beloved Borzois, but the joy drains from his face when he's told it is time for the dogs to retire. The dogs are kept from Louis's bedroom, a small bird in a cage by Louis's bedside an apt metaphor for the king's current fate. Louis will only express pleasure twice more, advising his grandson the Dauphin (Aksil Meznad) on compassionate rule and hearing a distant military band from his window on St. Louis Day, another instance of the king's isolation.
Once ensconced in his royal deathbed, the king receives applause from gathered courtiers after eating two small bits from a boiled egg dinner. His doctor, Fagon (Patrick d'Assumçao, "Stranger by the Lake"), enjoys intimacy through relayed gossip. News of a doctor from the south finds Fagon and the king's valet Blouin (Marc Susini) discussing the matter in hushed whispers from their beds and the king sleeps behind a curtain. Middle of the night cries for water gradually become moans. Fagon diagnoses gangrene, but the king refuses amputation. When Le Brun (Vicenç Altaió, "Story of My Death") arrives with his elixir of bull's semen, bull's blood, frog fat and 'brain juice,' he's declared a charlatan and made to drink it first. The king spits it out.
By the time four doctors from the Sorbonne consult, things look dire (the king's leg has turned black to the hip). Father Le Tellier (Jacques Henric) performs the Last Rites, Mozart's Mass in C Minor building majestically as the king takes Communion. Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg's camera stays on Léaud well after the music stops. The king's death is quiet, Louis so still he looks like a painted backdrop behind the ruffled edge of his blanket. After an autopsy, Fagon speaks the last line, 'Gentlemen, we'll do better next time.'
Serra's production is mesmerizing, Versailles recreated in a barren castle transformed by production designer Sebastián Vogler into a brocade cocoon. Costumes are extravagant, Louis's wig resembling a "Star Wars" X-Wing fighter (its removal late in the film reveals the king's vulnerable humanity). There is no traditional score, the hush surrounding Louis accented by a ticking clock.
Robin gives "The Death of Louis XIV" a B+.
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