The Setting Sun

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown in The Death of Louis XIV, Albert Serra’s watchful reckoning with mortality

By Yonca Talu

Ahistorically accurate, painstaking chronicle of the last days of France’s most powerful monarch, The Death of Louis XIV is Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s most fully realized attempt to convert a mythical figure into an ordinary man. Informed by his background in philosophy and literature, and pervaded by a fascination with the mundane, Serra’s films deconstruct iconic characters from history and fiction to reveal their common humanity. His breakthrough feature, Honor of the Knights (2006), tells the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza through deliberately banal moments that amount to a profound and moving meditation on existence. Birdsong (2008) depicts the Magi’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem against imposing mountain backdrops that suggest man’s insignificance in the face of nature, while Story of My Death (2013) revels in documenting Casanova’s life of fleshly pleasures and philosophical contemplation.

Despite thematic and stylistic consistencies, The Death of Louis XIV is a different beast from Serra’s previous work. In sharp contrast to Birdsong, which is set entirely outdoors amid desolate landscapes, the narrative here is confined to the royal bedchamber, where a fastidiously staged, austere spectacle of death unfolds over the course of three weeks. Bedridden with a gangrenous leg, the 76-year-old Sun King (Jean-Pierre Léaud) finds himself at the mercy of puzzled courtiers and doctors who fail to revive him despite their best efforts. Reduced to a living corpse, he mumbles and grumbles, and drifts in and out of sleep, trapped between reality and dream. The King’s physical deterioration is rendered through an unnervingly static and hypnotically paced mise en scène that, while viscerally involving the audience in Louis’s suffering, does not induce identification: the film’s true protagonist is not Louis XIV, but rather death, treated as a simultaneously cruel and banal fact of life.

Shot in two weeks with multiple cameras, The Death of Louis XIV plays out like a fever dream, employing a loose structure and a claustrophobic mood to create a viewing experience that is both immersive and disorienting. Refusing to romanticize death, Serra confronts it head-on, with a clinical style indebted as much to anatomical drawings as to the medical reports and courtly memoirs (those of the Duke of Saint-Simon and the Marquis of Dangeau) that served as his source material. Dramatic representations of death are eschewed in favor of a materialist approach centered on the rituals that mark the King’s final days. Except for a scene in which he gives political and personal advice to his great-grandson, the future Louis XV, there is hardly any reference in the film to Louis XIV’s identity as a monarch. Uninterested in the political implications of the King’s illness, Serra restricts his focus to his subject’s body, charting the spread of the infection through disquieting shots of rotting flesh. Figuratively dismembered by the camera, and literally so by surgeons following his death, the Sun King’s body becomes a pure and insignificant object, fixed in time and space and thoroughly desacralized.

France’s longest-reigning monarch, Louis XIV inherited the throne at age 4 and ruled until his death in 1715. Seeing himself as God’s agent on earth, he established an absolutist regime, in which he used the arts as a propaganda tool to promote his image. Portraits of Louis XIV, many painted by the court artist Charles Le Brun, were idealized depictions meant to glorify his status, often linking him with the sun god Apollo and the Greek emperor Alexander the Great. The discrepancy between representations of the King and his actual appearance is epitomized by Hyacinthe Rigaud’s iconic life-size portrait from 1701. The 63-year-old Louis, already in declining health when the painting was made, is shown as a young and vigorous king at the height of his powers. Draped in a sumptuous ceremonial robe embroidered with the royal fleur-de-lys, he stares out at the viewer with piercing confidence, proudly displaying his exceptionally thin and athletic legs that harken back to his days as a ballet dancer. The royal scepter in his hand and a sword attached to his belt as a symbol of his military might, Rigaud’s Louis XIV looks threatening and indomitable, an imaginary being immune to aging and decay.

Demystifying history is an inherently political gesture. Serra’s raw, unflinchingly candid, and unsentimental rendition of Louis XIV, diametrically opposed to that of Rigaud and unconcerned with the King’s personal history, challenges national mythology. In this regard, The Death of Louis XIV inscribes itself in the lineage of Roberto Rossellini’s historical films, specifically his 1966 The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, which examines the early years of the Sun King’s personal rule following the death of his chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661. Determined to govern without assistance, the 22-year-old Louis (Jean-Marie Patte) takes over an anxious and divided France, weakened by the civil wars of the Fronde during which disaffected nobles clashed with royal troops. An ambitious and indefatigable leader, he revitalizes the country, and consolidates his power and prestige through the construction of the Palace of Versailles, where he creates an elaborate court life to divert and tame the nobility. Like Serra, Rossellini does not offer a character study of Louis XIV but rather an exploration of a crucial period of his life through quotidian events. Favoring a materialist approach to history over psychologizing dialogue and epic battle sequences, he focuses on the King’s daily existence, which unfolds through extravagant public ceremonies wherein an army of servants attends to his Majesty’s needs before a mesmerized audience of aristocrats. Throughout the film, private and public become inextricably entwined: by transforming himself into a divinity, Louis XIV banishes himself irrevocably from life. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV ends with the King retiring to his room after an escorted walk in the gardens of his palace. Worn out and depressed, he silently strips off his garments and wig, revealing a hunchback and gray hair. At once poignant and unsettling—it is the first time in the film that Louis is alone—the scene concludes with the monarch reflecting on his life with François de La Rochefoucauld’s quote: “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” The driven, energetic youth of the Rossellini film’s beginning has turned into a disenchanted and lethargic middle-aged man, consumed by ego and ambition. Unmasked and stripped of his glamour, Rossellini’s Louis XIV movingly reassumes his humanity and his fellowship with other men as he begins his journey toward death. Marked by the King’s realization of his mortality, this moment feels like a prelude to The Death of Louis XIV.

Although maintaining a detached perspective throughout The Death of Louis XIV, Serra elegantly conveys the King’s inner life with sensory elements. In one of the rare scenes set during the day, a childlike Louis sits up in bed to enjoy the distant echoes of a military parade. The juxtaposition of Léaud’s awestruck, longing face with a shot of the idyllic landscape outside framed through the window bars reflects Louis’s anguish and sense of entrapment, likening Versailles to a prison. The filmmaker adopts a stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear narrative structure to represent the mental experience of death. Scenes overlap and blend into each other as Louis remains in bed while the bodies around him constantly change, characters swapping places and new ones emerging in the blink of a cut like ghosts. The nightmarish atmosphere is reinforced by the use of chiaroscuro and the continuous sound of a ticking clock in the background—a reminder of the imminence of death. Like all of Serra’s films, The Death of Louis XIV unfolds in a timeless present, an in-between space in which memory and consciousness occur simultaneously.

With virtually no plot other than the progression of the King’s disease, the film relies heavily on Jean-Pierre Léaud’s vulnerable acting. Famous for his vibrant, unrestrained body language as the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, the legendary actor exists in a state of complete paralysis here, dependent on others to meet his basic needs. Infused with a fragile naïveté, Léaud’s performance in The Death of Louis XIV belongs more to the realm of introspection than to that of action. Deprived of his usual mannerisms, such as emphatic hand gestures and the fiery, rebellious voice characteristic of his early performances, Léaud reverts to a state of childlike innocence, seeking parental warmth and protection in the arms of his fellow actors. Throughout the film, he reveals an uncanny gift for nonverbal communication, delivering intense emotion through microexpressions and stares: in Serra’s delicate world of details, a twitching lip and fluttering eyes signify much more than a line of dialogue. Filmed in unbroken long takes, Léaud immerses himself in the role to a torturous degree, enacting his own death through Louis XIV’s. In a much-discussed impromptu sequence, a teary-eyed King gives a long and devastating look into the camera as Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor plays over the soundtrack. Caught between reality and fiction, between past and present, this strange, melancholic moment represents a subversive and transcendental cinematic gesture that fuses the identities of Louis XIV and Jean-Pierre Léaud, demystifying both men.

Léaud’s development from boyhood to adulthood was intimately and meticulously recorded by François Truffaut. In The 400 Blows (1959), the inaugural film of the Antoine Doinel series, Léaud had his star-making role as a mischievous 14-year-old who struggles to find his place in the world, running away from home and school, and engaging in petty crime. He becomes a dreamy and solitary teenager fond of classical music in Antoine and Colette (1962), a tender tale of first love in which he loses the girl through befriending her parents. In Stolen Kisses (1968), the adolescent has morphed into a young man fresh out of military service, who reenters society through a series of odd jobs, and becomes infatuated with an older married woman. Léaud’s transformation into an adult is completed in Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979), delightful examinations of marriage, parenthood, and divorce. A fictional amalgam of Truffaut and Léaud, the eternal man-child Antoine Doinel dares to live fully and freely, navigating hardships with playfulness and fantasy. For all those acquainted with this exuberant hero of the French New Wave and indeed modern cinema, watching The Death of Louis XIV can be a troubling, if not excruciating experience. But the King does not call for pity; he endures his fate with dignity and patience. A symbolic conclusion to the Antoine Doinel series, The Death of Louis XIV represents the last stage of Léaud’s development, weaving together and immortalizing the image of the old man and that of the child.

The Long Goodbye

Jean-Pierre Léaud welcomes a royal send-off

At the 2016 New York Film Festival press conference for the film, you said that playing the death of Louis XIV became a way for you to face and go through your own death.

When Serra offered me the role of Louis XIV, I said to myself that this film would mean a great deal to me, in my life and in my filmography. I said to myself that I must succeed, with all the energy that’s in me. So I was in Louis XIV’s bed, trapped within an apparatus of three cameras that filmed me continuously from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, every single day. Even though the apparatus was hard to put up with, I hung on until the end. Any other actor would have said, “This is too much. I can’t make it.” Well, I decided to make it.

Through this apparatus, I stepped into the shoes of an old man in his death throes, and you cannot avoid personal repercussions if you play someone like that. And that’s when I began to feel the proximity of my own death and realized that Albert Serra was recording my own death through Louis XIV’s. At my age, you cannot banish death from your life. I was reminded of Jean Cocteau’s quote: “Cinema is death at work.”

In the editing, Serra cut all the dialogue and only kept the sounds and the force of the acting. This yielded a film made of exhales and wheezes. The immersion was so powerful that I did not get out completely unharmed. Serra filmed in static shots and in the editing played off of the intensity of looks. His editing proves that the film had to rely on performance rather than on the script and staging. For me, the agony of Louis XIV is hidden in the wheezes, and the physical intensity of the experience made me enter the process of my own death.

I just finished a film with the Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa. He also asked me to play a man of my age. In a way, for me these two films complete each other. I also have an interaction with death in Suwa’s film, but that role corresponds more to how I am in real life.

I fought so much for Serra’s film, and we succeeded in having the film in the official selection at Cannes, and now it is circulating all around the world. We won the game. By way of this film, I accepted the wisdom of old age and that I am going to die. I have reached an acceptance of the meeting, and this meeting is death. It feels good to be able to keep working in the profession that I love with good directors. I will die happy.

How was working with Albert Serra different from the other young filmmakers you’ve worked with, such as Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello, Tsai Ming-liang?

These are people that I respect a lot, and they are cinephiles who come from a tradition that is close to me. I made two films with Assayas. I had a substantial part in Paris Awakens [1991], and I feel that I got to express myself in the Bonello [The Pornographer, 2001]—it was a pleasurable acting experience. But with Serra, the line has been crossed. I went all the way. I am not acting in that film; I am someone who is waiting for the meeting. And this was something that François [Truffaut] really loved in me as well, a sort of hallucinatory immersion. In Serra’s film, there was something that has been transformed, something that exceeded even Serra himself.

Serra’s attempt to demystify Louis XIV is also an attempt to demystify you.

Two worlds collide in this film, and I have embodied Louis XIV for eternity, with the maximum truthfulness. Serra took shots at the beginning of the film where I was very angry and put them at the end. In my eyes, you can see the sense of death and the proximity of the meeting. I gave it all to Serra and he grabbed it in the editing. It’s funny to see the image of the little boy in The 400 Blows transformed into this agonized old man.

In cinema, there are rituals of transitions like for the Indians. These are difficult to process, but the pleasure of acting keeps you going. You have to come to an acceptance. But for eternity, I am the death of Louis XIV, what is left of him.

Closer Look: The Death of Louis XIV opens on March 31.

Yonca Talu is a filmmaker living in New York. She grew up in Istanbul and graduated from NYU Tisch.