Albert Serra’s compelling film The Death of Louis XIV about the slow death of the Sun King features an extraordinary performance by the legendary Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Sunsetby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s hard to believe that a film concentrated on a dying man in his last weeks could be so rivetting yet Jean-Pierre Léaud’s extraordinary performance as the Sun King, Louis XIV, glues your eyes to the screen. It’s set almost entirely in the King’s bedchamber in Versailles, a candle-lit, claustrophobic cave where daylight never penetrates. The dominant colour is red – the curtains and the bedclothes against which Louis reclines in pain, but still dressed in brocaded robes and a series of high, puffed-up wigs.
The king has complained of a pain in his leg but his physician Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao) misdiagnoses sciatica. In fact it’s the beginnings of gangrene, which slowly spreads as it is left untreated through a combination of lack of medical knowledge and perhaps deference – if Louis had not been king maybe life-saving amputation would have happened sooner. But Louis refuses amputation when his surgeon Maréchal (Bernard Belin) eventually recommends it and he resigns himself to an inevitable death. By this time he has been King of France for 72 years. His slow death contrasts him as a man preparing for death, dying in pain despite being the king, with his role as king and state, which carries on in the person of his five-year-old grandson, the future Louis XV.
Léaud conveys Louis’ increasing agony and suffering as the gangrene spreads and his body rots with little dialogue but the merest twitch of an eyebrow and the slightest movement. Courtiers and doctors come and go to his bedside, but they are ineffectual and argue over his treatment. The king calls for his secret wife Madame de Maintenon (Irène Silvagni). Blouin, his valet (Marc Susini), is attentive but ignored. A charlatan, Le Brun (Vicenç Altaió) arrives touting a magic elixir. Finally Louis is given absolution by Père Le Tellier (Jacques Henric).
Director Albert Serra (Story of My Death, Birdsong) has based his film closely on the two detailed memoirs of the time by courtiers and it’s an unflinching, detailed observation of Louis’ painful decline. Léaud is an iconic actor whose career started as a teenager in Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups in 1959 and has continued since then in countless films. To see him on screen as an old man in The Death of Louis XIV is as much as about his own ageing as that of the king. Last year at the Cannes Film Festival he was awarded an Honorary Palm in recognition of his entire career. The Death of Louis XIV shows him as a consummate actor in a film composed like a painting that says so much about mortality in so few words. It’s unmissable.
The Death of Louis XIV premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2016 and is released on 14 July 2017 – Bastille Day – in the UK.