Catalan prankster Albert Serra's Story of My Death seized on a juicy historical fantasy—Casanova meets Count Dracula, with grisly results—and came away with two-and-a-half lethargic hours of unscripted juvenilia masquerading as revisionist profundity. By contrast, the filmmaker's latest, The Death of Louis XIV, homes in on a concrete episode from 18th-century lore, draws on copious medical records and written accounts for its deadpan script, limits its action largely to a single boudoir, and ultimately emerges as a compact, improbably riveting viewing experience.
In prior efforts, Serra has shown a penchant for degrading his iconic subjects and passing the result off as humanizing historical realism—dwelling on Casanova as he admires his own excrement or shovels heaps of animal meat in his face, for instance. That tendency isn't fully abolished in The Death of Louis XIV, but it's tamed. The emphasis is where it should be—which is to say, not on the Sun King's increasingly black, gangrenous left leg, but on the leader's face, and the faces of those around him, as he sluggishly succumbs to his undoing. The humanity of the situation, rather than the grotesquery, is Serra's focus here, which is already a promising recalibration of his sensibility.
What really differentiates this film from its predecessor, though, is Jean-Pierre Léaud's imposing performance as the dying king. Whereas Story of My Death divvied up its attention among a handful of vacant non-actors, Serra's new film is a sturdy demonstration of the powers of a seasoned performer, even when that performer is coaxed into a mode of extreme understatement and passivity. Sagging under the weight of a fine velvet comforter and a wig that resembles an Old English sheepdog draped over his head, Léaud is confined to a royal bed for nearly the film's entirety, virtually immobile as the king fields the meddling gazes and cautious prodding of a battalion of government colleagues, medics, and reverential spectators. Backed into this corner, the actor nevertheless commands attention. His every microscopic facial gesture, each one less energized than the last, speaks as much to the king's agony and impatience as to his own draining corporeal existence.
Catalan prankster Albert Serra's film ultimately emerges as a compact, improbably riveting viewing experience.
Much has been made of the metatext inherent in the scenario: Léaud, the face of the Nouvelle Vague, wasting away in a dark room as an audience gawks at the sad spectacle—a handy metaphor for modern cinema perishing with no one to save it. It's a tempting interpretation for the cinema-savvy doomsayers who go looking for it but one that's not really manifested in any tangible way in the film, which is actually quite rooted in the particulars of its epoch.
Louis XIV's final days are depicted as a painfully awkward procession of half-hearted attempts at governing, prolonged episodes of dumbfounded observation, and hushed debates over best practices for treatment. This last set of discourses veers the film toward one of its central dialectical thrusts, which is the era-specific seesawing between science (represented as a handful of Sorbonne-educated doctors) and superstition (embodied by a Marseilles-based elixir specialist graced with a mystique of shell-shocked know how by Vicenç Altaió). If Story of My Death kept its own rationalism-versus-romanticism thrust as a vaporous clothesline on which to hang irresolute longueurs, Serra mines this similar thematic scaffolding with far more specificity and gravity in The Death of Louis XIV, as each decision made along these lines is tethered directly to the film's narrative stakes.
In its early stretches, when the king is still mostly sentient, the film generates a slow-burning black comedy that too often leans on the side of facile. The distant past is a foreign country, and Serra has a field day burlesquing, in his typically frozen, roomy compositions, the alien-ness of it all. Gags include the king swatting away a glass of water on account of it not being served in crystal, polite rounds of applause whenever he manages a small task like chewing off a piece of biscotin, and a jokey cut to his deathly mug when an onlooker remarks that “his expression is livelier.” All this seriocomic drollery is made additionally absurd by the extravagant abuses in the makeup and wardrobe departments; it's inherently amusing, if not exactly inherently enlightening, to watch actors feign solemnity while wearing jabots and wigs.
The longer the pathetic spectacle goes on, however, the further it gets under the skin, and the film winds up with a potent mix of the harrowing and the humane in its portrait of a ritualized community struggling to keep their wits about them in the face of human decay. The frisson produced isn't unlike that of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, which Serra seems deeply indebted to (and explicitly so in a late-stage autopsy sequence). In general, the painter's signature autumnal lighting and limiting of background space are reflected in the film's own candlelight schemes and cave-like setting, which is periodically revealed so as to invoke a proscenium arch with Louis's bed as the focal piece. Serra's riffed on the Old Masters before but never with as much confidence and technical sharpness as he does here, and this newfound aesthetic force, coupled with the trust placed in a presence like Léaud, makes The Death of Louis XIV the director's finest work yet.