Death of Louis XIV (2017)

Viewed June 10th and June 13th

 

The body of the French monarch Louis XIV, perhaps the most decadent human being to have walked the Earth, slowly breaks down.

Through the cut-out typography of the film's vaguely psychedelic title sequence, we see fragments of a shot tracking across a natural landscape. A rumbling on the soundtrack slows; we cut out of the titles to a shot of a dome in a forest--the mist moving horizontally across the screen. And then to our protagonist, Louis XIV, at twilight. Taking in the dimming landscape, the aging Louis smacks his lips; the wind blows his hat. He signals for his footmen to push him along again and they do so. And then, from that moment on, all motion stops...For the next nearly two hours, we're in the King' chambers. We're there, by the King's bed. We're watching the King's body break down. A clock ticks, his doctors work to sustain life. And that's it. At the end, he dies and everything we saw before is literally dissected. In the earliest of these chamber scenes, Louis is laughing and cheerful as he plays with his dogs, but, after that, we're basically watching the man descend into pain. The gambit of this film is that, despite all this inertness (almost a parody of art house endurance test pretentiousness) the director Albert Serra and his collaborators (most notably Jean-Pierre Leaud as The Sun King and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg), keep us fixed in place without any gimmicks. It's not entertaining (although there is a peculiar sense of humor), but the contrast of glowing material opulence and viscous corporeal decay creates a cinematic tone, a world, that sustains itself and, like the work of a serious painter or composer, plays with itself, further opening itself up to demonstrate how much depth its structure can hold. At the core of all this depth is a slipperiness. There are themes and trails of thought about the absurdity of absolute power or of the historical crossroads of faith & reason; however, each of these is like one of the glass eyeballs that are displayed in a case before Louis in an early scene. Each is false, only in service of a larger structure.