Recently, Christopher Nolan hailed Stanley Kubrick as the greatest director of all time, mainly for his ability to make nitrate film stock mimic the most sublime visual attributes of great paintings. Though he was thinking of 2001, Barry Lyndon is a better example of this attribute, and Barry Lyndon is the most obvious analog when discussing Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV. This is about as close as we’ll ever get to the richness of Rembrandt on film, and there are whole passages where all we have are closeups of faces that are doing nothing in particular but look like people from the 18th century.
The ostensible “plot” of the movie, based on memoirs of some of Louis XIV’s courtiers, is essentially the last month of the Sun King’s life. Having apparently injured his leg during a hunting expedition, the elderly monarch spends the entire movie succumbing to gangrene while in repose. We know we’re in Versailles not so much because of the extravagant wigs and costumes, but due to the obsequious behavior of the people who crowd around the soon-to-be deathbed, applauding every little gesture, even while the king is obviously in great pain. Played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, Louis is essentially a stoic facade occasionally wracked by coughs and horrible moans. Attempts to keep him in the pink through food and wine are met with impatient thrusts of the hand and withering smirks. In the only show of gallantry, he dons a stupid chapeau (the gesture bringing to mind Dylan’s immortal line of the “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” balancing on the wearer’s head like a “mattress on a bottle of wine”) just in order to please the ladies in his midst. His reaction to their appreciation is the epitome of condescending disgust.
The film’s almost supernatural beauty confounds its theme of hubris in literal decay (the infected leg turns black in frightening degrees), so too much thematic analysis robs the viewer of the pleasure of not only Leaud’s nuanced performance, but the movie’s rightful status as moving painting rather than moving picture. Since the extended conversations among physicians as to the best course of treatment are basically pointless, they simply serve to provide tableaux that makes you wonder which Great Master Serra is ripping off at any given moment. The dialogue is inadvertently droll in that the only person in the room who sees the comic futility of much of the conversation is the dying king himself. Leaud’s face when someone remarks his “expression” has become more stimulating is horrifically priceless. The on-screen tone is solemn throughout, but you can imagine the actors cracking up at the implications of their work between takes.
In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Image Forum, Aoyama (03-5766-0114).
The Death of Louis XIV home page in Japanese
photo (c) Capricci Films, Rosa Filmes, and Ercraun Films, Bobi Lux 2016