So there’s this movie, see? I just saw it, and I think you’re gonna love it. It’s about two hours long. It’s in French. It’s about the death of King Louis XIV, who is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. You know, the kid from The 400 Blows? It’s probably a metaphor for the death of cinema. It’s directed by Albert Serra, a leading light of the “slow cinema” form of modern experimental film. Oh, also, nothing really happens, and there’s extended sequences where no one speaks or does anything as the camera just sits and watches them. No, wait, please, don’t run away!
Look, I understand that this is gonna be a hard sell to most anyone not already invested in the world of so-called “serious” film. The Death of Louis XIV (apt title, that) is, from all outside metrics, “difficult” cinema. It reads almost like a joke about experimental film, about pretentious and ponderous “art” that must be as dry as the sunset of the Sun King was long. It certainly contains all the elements that many would find dull and self-serious in such a movie: long takes, static framing, discussions of philosophy, period trappings, affected acting, and no action to speak of. The most surprising moment in the film involves a member of the royal court accidentally burning themselves; most other moments simply sit with the king as he dies, ruminating on his suffering and passage into death, portraying with weighty tones not just the king’s death, but the very death of kingship itself, the monarchy’s dying breaths.
But underneath that exterior lies a film that is, almost shockingly, hilarious, a darkly biting joke about the very kind of film you might think it is, a piss take about the pathetic nature of monarchies and royal power. That is also includes one of the most bracing, confrontational fourth wall breaks in contemporary film is both incidental and intrinsic to its value, perhaps foremost, as a brilliantly magnetic piece of entertainment. The Death of Louis XIV accomplishes the rare feat of being gripping despite essentially nothing happening, despite the fact that the majority of things the average filmgoer is trained to look for never come to fruition. Yes, the royal court makes mistakes in the treatment of the Sun King’s gangrene, but all knowledge of such mistakes is not known by our characters until far after it’s too late. We know, from the very title, that all attempts at treatment will be failures, whether they be made by charlatans advising concoctions involving bull semen or the most learned of academics arriving far too late to do any good. The path by which we arrive to our autopsy is lined up by a mixture of contempt and adoration, of stunningly realized tactile sensation in service of rat’s nests of hair, sweaty, soiled bedsheets, a leg that grows more and more necrotic as time goes on.
One of the first scenes involves the king asking someone to bring him his ostentatious hat just so he can doff it for company, and then have the same party remove said hat from the king’s immediate vicinity in manner more suited to a robot or a dry cleaner’s rotating rack. It is pompous, regal, tragic, and preposterously silly. If we are not meant to find this pitiably hysterical, then I apologize to Albert Serra, but the rest of the film doesn’t work; it is precisely Louis XIV’s pathetic aristocracy that provides our way through, our way in, and our way out. It is the comic and tragic through-line with which the whole film functions, upon which the tricky tone must rest or risk collapsing into self-important conservatism. It is what allows its widely spoken of subtext–the death of cinema–to be more than a regressive, condescending finger wag at contemporary audiences.
Yes, there is more than enough ammunition to believe Alert Serra is taking aim at the downfall of the “art film,” of the highbrow’s decline and gangrenous, toxic current state. Léaud, as one of the last remaining icons of the French New Wave, symbolizes the very literal death of perhaps the most historically important movement in world cinema–Resnais is 91; Varda, 89; Godard, the young pup, is 87. Rivette, Rohmer, and Marker have all left us recently. That way of making films, subsumed so totally by the cinema of the modern era, has fallen away, as new, hungry young directors forge new paths, taking for granted the now half-decade removed revolution the old guard enacted. The new upstarts, like all new upstarts, are engaged in a game of killing their idols, destroying the bloated aristocratic form the New Wave assumed after its assimilation into the mainstream. In a way, this can certainly be seen as tragic, and The Death of Louis XIV is clear about this, in its majesty and occasional lush beauty. But what separates it from the conservatives, from the regressives, is its bleak, acidic humor: yes, the king is dying, but if this is what the ritual of kingship looks like, if this is how his buffoonish council acts and speaks, if this is the institution being propped up? Then to hell with it all. The king, despite his renunciation of war, despite his religious confession, despite the luxurious halls he presides over, in the end, deserves his death, and we might as well have a laugh while it happens.
This simultaneous magnitude and farce is what sells The Death of Louis XIV. While Serra is often compared to Russia’s Alexander Sokurov, Serra’s film has a magnetic, enjoyable charisma, and never falls into Sokurov’s pathetic reactionary moralism, his aristocracy fetishism. In many ways, The Death of Louis XIV succeeds by being everything Russian Ark failed to be–hilarious, deeply tactile, controlled, and enveloping. Yes, it is a “serious film”, and yes, it may be an example of “slow cinema,” but in my many years of watching such films, of finding such heroes of the “movement” (no one in the movement believes themselves to be part of it, and the very classification is controversial, but nonetheless) like Béla Tarr to be my favorite filmmakers, never have I had so much sheer fun watching a film like this, and never has the time passed so quickly. If you’ve never been to this part of film town, this would not be a bad first stop to make, a way to get acquainted with the area. At the very least, it’s hospitable.
Directed by Albert Serra; written Thierry Lounas and Albert Serra; starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick d’Assumçao, Marc Susini, and Bernard Belin; 115 minutes.