His tiny head nestled in a wild bird’s nest of a wig, Louis XIV is dying. He is surrounded by his court, his minions, and his physicians. Efforts to save him grow increasingly futile. Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV is just what the title says, and it runs for nearly two hours. It is not a movie for every taste; in fact, it is as close to watching paint dry as a film can get. I mean that in a good way.
I emerged from The Death of Louis XIV as from a dream, or nightmare, or maybe it was a farce. I have never seen anything quite like it. The king lies in his royal bed attempting to hold court, which doesn’t work out any better than his efforts to sip a few drops of water. The sight of the vaunted “sun king,” who was crowned at age 4 and ruled until his death just shy of 77, reduced to a hapless wheezing body is both terrifying and comic. His body is examined as if it was a piece of meat. Permission is asked to wipe his mouth. Doctors share useless opinions. A charlatan weighs in, suggesting the use of a potion of bull’s sperm. Dispassionate attendants lean in; family members surround the king adorned in preposterous wigs. The king is dying; long live the king.
His Majesty is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the youthful Antoine Doinel in director François Truffaut’s acclaimed series, which began with 400 Blows in 1959. It takes a while to recognize the familiar actor’s face in the agonized visage of the king. Léaud’s extraordinary performance draws us in; every breath and gesture resonates. I laughed at the absurdity of the character’s hapless predicament, though it also broke my heart to watch the stilted manners and the hear the antiquated (and ineffectual) discussions on science and medicine.
The camera lingers on Serra’s chiaroscuro compositions; the walls of the room could be a gallery of 17th-century Dutch paintings. Nothing is rushed; we are invited to dawdle and observe. There is no context beyond this royal chamber. Anonymous courtiers attend to each feeble utterance made by the king; they engage in whispered conversations. The effect is hypnotic. Two extraordinary moments stand out: The doctors ask their Royal Highness if they may see his tongue. Slowly the king opens his mouth and out pokes his helpless tongue for close examination. (It is the best performance by a tongue I have seen in some time.) Another stunning moment comes after the king has been given last rites by the Church. Mozart’s Mass in C Minor wells up. Louis’ dying eyes look directly into the camera. Time stands still. It is the single most horrifying shot I have seen this year.