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New Release Review - THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV

the death of louis xiv review
The expiration of the notorious French ruler.







Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Albert Serra

Starring: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Patrick d'Assumcao, Marc Susini, Irene Silvagni, Bernard Belin, Jacques Henric

the death of louis xiv uk poster

Remember being five years old? Sticky fingers, playing conkers, jumpers for goalposts? Not for Louis the Great, the 17th/18th century French monarch: at five the lad was in charge of an entire country! And he must have been good at it too, as Louis XIV, aka the Sun King, remained the ruler of France for 72 years (the longest recorded reign of a monarch in European history - at least until Elizabeth of the House of Windsor beats him in 2025). What’s more, Louis’ sovereignty concurred with a period in French history wherein the country’s influence and power was consolidated; leading the charge in three European wars, crushing France’s protestant faction and inadvertently setting the ground for revolution by establishing an approach of supreme monarchical authority (good going for a five year old). So, when Louis XIV passed on in 1715, this was not just the death of a protestant bothering war monger, but the end of an epoch for France: the king didn’t even have an heir apparent, which ensued political upheaval in his wake, as Louis had outlived all of his legitimate offspring (again, not bad for a five year old).

the death of louis xiv

Thierry Lounas and Albert Serra’s much exalted The Death of Louis XIV details the protracted death of the king as he falls foul of a gangrene infection. And, bon sang, is it protracted: at almost two hours of long takes, grim narrative simplicity and unflinching observational focus, this is slow cinema at its slowest and most cinematic. Serra’s film details a process: filming largely in tight medium shots, which for the most part foreground the king on his death bed (played, in a triumph of casting, by the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud), we witness the deterioration of the king - and via metonymic resonance, the state - in majestic, reserved concentration.

the death of louis xiv

At such length, it’s just as well that The Death of Louis XIV is gorgeous to look at. Jonathan Ricquebourg’s chiaroscuro cinematography of deep browns and burnished orange deliberately recall the shadowed verisimilitude of Dutch masters, a style which is indeed replicated in the very portraits that hang in the king’s boudoir. Throughout the expiration, the king’s dignity is preserved - even in death he is obligated to wear a series of fright wigs that make him look like an exhausted Brian May. Assorted courtiers hopelessly lie about the severity of his injury (is there a more terrifying colour than the chalkboard black of skin infected with gangrene?), even as Louis in turn puts a brave face on it for the court. Assorted valets clap when the king dons a hat, applaud when he cracks open a boiled egg. It is both sad and ridiculous, but then death itself is absurd in its clumsy and indignant inevitability, a truth that this film seeks to explore.

the death of louis xiv

At the centre of it all is Leaud’s imperial performance; his Louis is corpulent and solitary, but magnetic as his denial gives way to regret and, ultimately, grim resignation (‘everything disgusts me’, he ruminates towards the end). The casting of Leaud has a particular poignancy: audiences have seen this actor grow up from the little boy in Les Quatre Cents Coups and its various follow ons to become a grand old dame of Cinema de France, and, just as Louis XIV’s life was integral to French history, so too is Leaud’s work entwined with the New Wave. The resonance of Leaud’s casting, along with its painterly mise-en-scene and perfect composition, makes it easy to understand how The Death of Louis XIV has been so beloved of cineastes. However, as the static camerawork and oppressive airlessness begins to overwhelm (this is, after all two hours of watching an old man die) the rest of us may say vive la difference to The Death of Louis XIV’s stifling atmosphere of pomp and deathly circumstance.

The Death of Louis XIV is in UK cinemas July 14th.



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