The start of a new phase in Roberto Rossellini’s art, The Taking of Power of Louis XIV must have at first disconcerted many of the filmmaker’s admirers. A TV production detailing the ascension of the titular 17th-century French monarch, it was largely derided as a stolid and impersonal period piece, a betrayal of the ideas of Italian neorealism by one of its founders. In fact, the film retains several of that movement’s strategies, not the least being the use of non-actors: Jean-Marie Patte, a visibly nervous former office clerk, “plays” Louis XIV with rattled-off line readings and the 10-yard stare of somebody looking at his director for help. Patte’s stunned helplessness at the center of the story works brilliantly in expressing the resolve of an awkward court puppet who learned how to erect his own power structure. Louis’s road to becoming the Sun King involves the eviction of the Queen Mother (Katharina Renn) and the capture of rival Foquet (Pierre Barrat), the building of the Palace of Versailles and the introduction of increasingly ostentatious clothing as a way of keeping the nobility under control. However, Rossellini is less interested in simply illustrating historical facts—the story’s most dramatic moment is casually glimpsed from the distance of a tower window—than in contemplating a kingdom’s rituals and how they can smother people.
Despite accusations of academic dryness, Louis XIV can be an almost overwhelmingly physical picture. When the dying Cardinal Mazarin (Silvagni) is carried from his bed and bled by a gaggle of doctors, the impact of the moment is, in a quieter but no less striking way, as palpable as Ingrid Bergman facing the heat of the volcano in Stromboli. Few films better capture the cumbersomeness of frilly costumes and chapeaus, or the way wigs and jewelry seem to weigh down on the characters as they struggle to uphold the pose of a decadent society. Louis’s triumph rests in mastering this pose, turning such activities as a meal or a picnic into elaborate productions and the court into spectators and, therefore, slaves. It’s a claustrophobic world of bizarre, rigid rites (the flourishing of hats, the constant cries of “Le Roi!”) that, given a present-tense dimension by the stoic zooms of Rossellini’s camerawork, seems less historical than science fiction. (Stanley Kubrick would later adopt the aesthetic for Barry Lyndon, transforming its overly composed tableaux into sarcophaguses for the characters.) “Minds are governed more by appearances than by the true nature of things,” the King says. Louis XIV is an absolutely savage and political work in which Rossellini ponders a system’s impeccably dressed precipice, a notion never more profoundly examined than in the magnificent final long take: The regent, a blobby figure shorn of his royal layers and alone with the camera, realizes that by mastering the “appearances” he has also become their prisoner.