That the UK release of Albert Serra’s period feature almost coincides with the July 14 Bastille Day celebrations, during which revolutionaries exhumed the remnants of Louis XIV’s corpse, could be completely accidental. However, in Serra’s tragicomedy the viscera of France’s longest reigning monarch are extracted in a similar spectacle of screen profanity.
In The Death of Louis XIV, we do not only bear witness to the death of an absolutist monarch but the shattered hopes of his attending valets; their politely pious refusal to give up hope until the last moment is incongruously absurd given our modern medical knowledge. This reminder of the futility of all things and the fragility of all bodies, including those of the divinely ordained, is not just deeply affecting but politically transgressive.
A Vanitas screen-artist for the 21st century, Serra presents the richness of the Sun King’s gradual decomposition. Protracted shots linger on the colours and textures of the king’s candle-lit chamber rendering a portrait of New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud. This film is most meaningful for fans of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, from which Léaud grew to prominence.
Serra’s final image connects with Truffaut’s, suggesting a continuity between Léaud’s fragile, bedridden corpse and the screen kineticism of his 14-year-old debut. While some might read this coldly mortal autobiography as the ending – or historicizing – of a career, or even of European arthouse cinema, the transcendent final image delivers memories of the young Antoine Doinel besides the sea, and above everything else, hope.
Although the significance of this film within the context of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s career might be lost on some audiences, Serra’s representation of a king as prisoner within his own body neatly subverts the tropes of historical dramas about royalty.
CAST: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Patrick d’Assumçao, Marc Susini, Bernard Belin
DIRECTOR: Albert Serra
WRITERS: Thierry Lounas, Albert Serra
SYNOPSIS: Upon returning from a hunting expedition, King Louis XIV feels a sharp pain in his leg. He begins to die, surrounded by loyal followers in the royal chambers.