Jean-Pierre Léaud in The Death of Louis XIV, 2016. Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
(Capricci Films, 2016)
From deep within Louis XIV’s billowing gray afro—more a cloud than a sun—the once lively eyes of Jean-Pierre Léaud gaze out vacantly. Over the course of Serra’s simultaneously tedious and fascinating film, Léaud’s Sun King drifts and snoozes through his remaining days in a state of almost catatonic nonchalance, occasionally stopping to doff his hat or eat a fig to the great applause of courtiers. Serra’s stone-faced, clinical staging places the action in a single room where, surrounded by velvet cloth and gilded candlesticks, the decaying king and a handful of his closest advisors and doctors await the inevitable. Louis’s leg is rotting due to a sudden, unexplained case of gangrene—perhaps an intimation of his reign’s decadence: the more top-heavy a society becomes, the more likely it will disintegrate. That reading becomes muddied over the course of the film, however, by Serra’s insistence on a kind of documentary realism. The filmmaker presents the characters—including the fading king—as relatable, real, and frankly gross people of their time. They genuinely seem to care for the dying king, or for what he represents, as they struggle to keep him alive, and most importantly, comfortable. They are not malicious or heartless, but simply limited—by their ignorance of medicine and by the smallness of their world, by the dimness of candlelight and the lack of refrigeration.
Serra seems intent on rendering the death of the king as accurately as possible, beautifully shot, and with hardly any commentary or subtext. The massive wigs—which appear at first to be secondary, Muppet-like characters—become prosaic, sweaty pieces of dirty clothing by the end of the film.
Though Léaud, the iconic man-child, has almost no lines—mainly he just groans and drools—his presence and past filmography dominate the film. It’s disturbing to watch the actor who embodied the youthful energy, defiance, and joy of French New Wave cinema surrounded by flies, slowly and painfully dying from an easily preventable disease. As the credits roll on the New Wave generation—and the baby boomers by extension—it’s hard not to see the film drawing parallels between the decadence of an eighteenth-century court and the decline of the generation that has dominated post-war twentieth-century culture and politics.
The Sun King is toppled not only by his giant hairdo, but by a rot brought on by isolation and self-indulgence. In the end, the world of the most powerful man on earth is only as large as his room.