Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sans soleil

La mort de Louis XIV

If you fell asleep, it wouldn't be your fault, but The Death of Louis XIV has better reasons for being boring than the typical exercise in pretension—French or otherwise—and if you don't want to be bored while it's on, well, perhaps try actually looking at it.

2016 (France)/2017 (USA)
Directed by Albert Serra
Written by Thierry Lounas and Albert Serra
With Jean-Pierre Leaud (Louis XIV Bourbon) and Patrick d'Assumcao (Dr. Fagon)

Spoiler alert: if you can't read, then I can't spoil it for you with a written review, can I?

Well, I'm in a quandary.  As far as I'm concerned, Tim Brayton's already written the definitive review for Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV.  And so if I find myself compelled to basically repeat what's he's said, except without the same unnervingly-deep base of knowledge Brayton possesses, or the same keen eye and insight he brings, then it's only because when I agree with him completely on this film, and I do, my agreement nevertheless comes bearing slightly different valences regarding its various points of interest.

Not that there are many points of interest to La mort de Louis, which, obviously, is completely by design—insert the rude joke I made to my girlfriend, about how it can't even be possible that it took two whole people to write this screenplay, which is credited to both Serra and his producer, Thierry Lounas—and be warned now (if you weren't warned already by the capsule review above), Louis is as outright inert as any movie could conceivably get.

Helpfully, the "plot" is contained entirely within that title, and the film concerns itself, exclusively, with the final weeks of the Sun King of France, Louis XIV, as he and his doctors and valets struggle with an infection, which definitely isn't gangrene, according to his chief doctor, Fagon, and which ultimately spreads from his right leg to his guts, and kills him.  I reckon that Louis expects you to know how Louis XIV died, for this bit of irony to work; and while Louis doesn't do the slightest thing to contextualize its title character, it's not a totally unfair request, at least not for its presumed audience of educated French people.  And if I had remembered, it would've joined the ranks of the many little jokes the film makes—dark jokes, but not laughless ones at all—about the absurdity of its subject's demise, enough that if I needed to classify it as anything beyond a "biopic" (though hardly a typical one), then it would have to be a black comedy.

So, if not above all, then at least above everything else in the narrative (such as it is), Louis is about taking one of the most mythologized figures of the past five hundred years—the most powerful king in all French history, not to mention its longest-reigning—and reminding you that not just was this man mortal, but that the center of power in the most powerful state in Europe for seventy-two years was, despite it all, made of meat, and, no matter how long it takes, all meat eventually rots.

In this regard, Louis is circumspect, almost to a fault, at the beginning; but as the king's condition worsens, the film tries less and less hard to hide the signs of impending demise, and, in the end, in its coldly clinical way, it lets us see exactly what our man was made of.  In the intervening time, it takes no great pains to endear us to Louis XIV, though I'd say it's hard to watch any old man die over the course of two hours, and feel absolutely nothing.

And Louis is almost exactly the right length for this exercise in single-minded slow cinema: long enough to make you feel the passage of the minutes (and even the seconds), but still short enough to not become genuinely unwelcome.  Meanwhile, virtually every shot is a reflection of the film as a whole, for most of these are exceptionally long and drawn-out, too, sometimes almost comically-so—one of the film's first gestures is the king in bed, roused to give some sign to his courtiers that he would prefer to party hearty with them, rather than sleep, and he therefore elects to doff his hat to them.  As he is in bed, he doesn't have his hat, and so he sends his valet to retrieve his hat, which the valet does, off-camera, and as long as my description of this tiny little nothing of an event is, it's longer still within the film itself.  Yet it is amusing in its indulgence, and a representative example of what this movie's built out of: very long moments of waiting for something not very important to happen, all rolled up into a single, even longer moment, spent waiting for something that seems like it ought to be important to happen, but by the time that this something becomes inevitable, it doesn't actually seem all that important anymore, simply because you've become so tired of waiting for it.  Poor Louis, after all, has probably gotten to that point long before you.

I choose to interpret the most brazen gambit of Louis through this lens, anyway: one of the most notable (and, I'd say, least friendly) things about the film is that it is very quiet, both in terms of its dialogue, which is a borderline-necessity, but also because it possesses almost no musical score whatsoever, and almost all the music in it (already a rarity) is diegetic, and distantly-heard through walls.  And this is the rule the film abides by, right up until a moment rather deep into its runtime, whereupon Mozart's Mass in C Minor, K. 427 (chorus and everything) roars into life, while the dying king stares at something unknowable off in the middle distance, barely moving and barely breathing, for what seems like an eternity. By this point, Serra has ensured that you've entirely lost track of just how many minutes of his two hours have passed; suffice it say, this scene is brought to you by the most abominably cruel filmmaking possible.  But dying, I suppose, or at least dying like Louis died, must indeed feel an awful lot like being utterly dicked around by a very cruel (and very capricious) god.

Though it's tough to say whether the foregoing completely excuses this film's intentional failure to present a less-intrusive classical soundtrack elsewhere, if for nothing else than to anchor the audience's attention a little bit more to all the non-spectacle of the non-events that are not happening on their screen.  Oh well.

The central element of Louis, of course, is Jean-Pierre Leaud (evidently a former child star of some enduring reputation).  I mean, it has to be, obviously, as he's in almost every single scene, and is the compositional center of at least a majority of the shots—and given his past, there is, I'd guess, a historical weight behind his performance that might not have manifested with any other actor on the screen.  But this could only be a factor if you've spent a lot time with, or give much of a crap about, the French New Wave.  Hence I can only speak to what he does here, and it's actually pretty great on the merits, at least within the limitations of the role, which (admittedly) could plausibly be played by an animatronic doll; but let's give the credit where it's due, and Leaud's restrained expressions of pain, befuddlement, and annoyed expectance are entirely correct, and sometimes legitimately moving.  (It is more than worth mentioning, incidentally, that Patrick d'Assumcao is every bit as good, as the self-centered royal physician whose arrogance drives the film's bitterest, most contemptuous ironies.)

Yet the most important thing Leaud's grunts and gazes do is simply to give the camera something old to have in its frame, and the same basic thing is true of every other human object here; while there are a fair number of period pieces (especially period pieces that take place in the same general post-Renaissance timeframe) which glean their visual inspiration from the art of the period they hope to represent, I do not know any, not even old Barry Lyndon, that do it so well, nor so terrifyingly precisely.  I received Louis alongside Loving Vincent; and though one's a cartoon and the other is actual photography, it's honestly hard to decide which one looks more like the paintings they're referencing, in the latter case specific Van Goghs, and here a broader range of Baroque portraiture.

No matter how many minutes have gone by, Louis continues to surprise you—in an almost visceral way—with yet another image that, it seems, could not possibly be captured by a camera.  They get everything right: the ways colors smudge on the faces of the men and women impassively watching their king die; the ways the darkness encroaches in the manner of a Baroque painting where it's never quite black but more of a very, very dark brown or green; the ways that candlelight so delicately interacts with the astonishing set of wigs provided by costume designer Nina Avramovic; the morbidity and melancholy of it, in the ways the splendid appointments of Louis' room seem to decay along with their owner; the ways that the light, besides the candlelight (for this cinematography is not any more motivated by realism than the Rembrandts and La Tours, etc., it's based upon), and the depth of field draw your attention to whatever is supposed to be important within the frame.  (Literally, the only complaint you could make, besides some spurious ones based on ten minutes' worth of art history research—like "this feels more like Dutch Baroque than French Baroque"—is that the 'Scope ratio does few favors for the closeups given to the supporting cast, who are not laying supine and dying in a bed; though it is ideal for the king, who is laying supine and dying in his bed, as well as the more usual, and more iconic, medium shots, which do tend to make up the bulk of the picture.)

But there's more to it than mimickry—though mimickry would, at this level of craft, absolutely be enough.  With the inestimable assistance of cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, Serra has done something outright amazing.  Together, they've taken what on paper seems like it ought to be an anti-epic of prodigious frustration—a movie about a mighty king that takes place at Versailles, and then barely sees fit to leave his bedchamber for its entire duration—and turned it into some of the most hypnotic cinema possible.  Not solely because it is beautiful, but because it is cinema, and does something that only the movies can do.

The Death of Louis XIV, then (and to put it bluntly), is as fascinating an examination of cinema as a durational medium as I think I've ever seen; Serra and Ricquebourg, bringing the techniques of one medium into another, do what fine art actually can't, and that's force you to drink deeply of every single composition, which are (of course) almost uniformly variations upon either Louis, dying, or members of Louis' court, observing him dying.  No one can make you look at a painting, after all; and I doubt I'm the only person who, when he does look at a painting, often tends to simply scan it for the relevant "narrative" details, and then moves on.

But because of its very nature as something that begins and ends, and moves at the pace set by a director, not a viewer, you can't really do that with a movie (or, rather, you can, but you're a shitty movie watcher if you do); and even this film, though as sparse and minimalistic as any you're ever likely to see, is not so sparse and minimalistic that you can literally turn away from it for any length of time and miss nothing.  Thus it traps you with it, and with Louis Bourbon—and the miracle of it is that you don't resent it—and it requires you to bear witness, as a human body ends its span as a human being.  And it reminds you that, even in the happiest scenario for your own life, eventually this will be what you'll be waiting on, too.

Score: 8/10


  1. Waiting for the double bill with
    Death of Stalin

    1. Hey, I might catch it when I get a chance! I'd kind of forgotten about it till you reminded me of it.