Slowly Slips Away: The Body and Time in The Death of Louis XIV (2016)

The preeminent feature of Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s (b.: 1975) cinema is the human body. Set among the mythic figures of Western civilization, both fictional and historical—from Sancho Panza and Count Dracula to Casanova, the three Magi, and now the “Sun King,” France’s Louis XIV—Serra’s films place special emphasis on the physical, bodily presence of its subjects, whether it is the exertion experienced by the wise men on their journey to Bethlehem in Birdsong (2008), or the failing physique of Casanova, and the various forms of bodily emission and discharge, in Story of My Death (2013). The Death of Louis XIV (2016) is closely aligned with the latter in its unfaltering observation of the monarch’s final days in late 1715, as gangrene slowly transforms the world’s most powerful leader into a corpse. Serra’s widescreen 2.35:1 cinematography presents the royal’s body in full, stretched-out from powdered-wig-topped head to rotting leg as each day the infection becomes more conspicuous. Between these wide frames, which serve to spatialize the monarch’s protracted experience of dying, the filmmaker alternates close-ups of Louis’s face, his skin drooping and eyes watering as we see this same end rendered in the details of his physiognomy.

Well, not Louis’s face exactly, but Jean-Pierre Léaud’s, acting royalty himself, having first exploded onto the cinematic landscape as a young teen in François Truffaut’s epoch-defining The 400 Blows (1959). Following this auspicious debut, Léaud would reprise his most famous role (that of Antoine Doinel) four more times, between 1962 and 1979’s Love on the Run, the latter of which was released in the actor’s mid-thirties. Léaud, in other words, is an actor already associated with growing older on screen, with the inevitable passage of time that made the charismatic adolescent into a romantic lead. The Death of Louis XIV revisits the French New Wave icon still a number of years later, and more than a half century since his screen debut—an incredible reign in its own right. Serra’s film, in this sense, is not only inevitably, but is intentionally a document of the actor’s decaying body too; both deaths, so to speak, float to the image’s surface, remaining perpetually foregrounded as we see life slowly slip from the film’s two on-screen subjects, Louis XIV and Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Slowly, of course, being one of the operative words. Serra’s is archetypal slow cinema, an art-cinema movement that privileges the long take (single shots of exceptional length) and the felt, haptic or bodily experience of duration—elements both that are well suited to Louis’s gradual death. Narrative in the director’s latest, as in prior features such as Birdsong, indeed cedes centrality to the body itself, in this sense making an argument for what cinema is at it most fundamental: bodies in space, capturing some fragment of duration. To minimize this very basic equation, which Serra’s work unwaveringly heightens, is to overlook one of the form’s central experiences, namely the embodied feeling of time passing—an experience that takes on another dimension of meaning as result of the king’s illness. As it always is for the human body, time is death in Serra’s film; the director simply slows its down as he turns his attention from story to the human presence that fills his screen.

Then again, The Death of Louis XIV is also about its exceptions: most of all, about the treatment that the Sun King receives from his countless attendants and physicians. When Louis successful eats an egg before a crowd of onlookers, his observers break out in applause, assuring one another that his regained appetite will be grounds for international celebration. If death is an experience that not even Louis is able to cheat, with the clock ticking rhythmically in his intimate abode—he eventually is administered the last rites despite his initial resistance to clerical intervention, confident as he is that is his time has not yet come; Story of My Death, it is worth noting, is far more explicit in its eighteenth-century characters’ (Casanova and Dracula) anti-Christianity—his final days remaining uniquely those of the world’s most powerful man.

So too are the film’s settings, which provide a lushness and visual grace to what is otherwise a depiction of creeping physical rot. Unexpected though it might be for a film that explicitly observes the growing infection in Louis’s leg, The Death of Louis XIV is one of the past year’s best looking films, dominated as it is by the warm interior candlelight that illuminates the Sun King’s lush bedchamber. As with the naturally lit Story of My Death before it, The Death of Louis XIV concerns itself, on an almost thematic level, with the aesthetic appearance of spaces bathed in period light, an element of form that is no less reducible than the bodies, spaces, and time that combine to describe Serra’s masterful twenty-first century Modernist art cinema. This is all to say that The Death of Louis XIV stakes a claim for what cinema is, or to put it another way, it is a cinema about cinema that centers on Léaud’s iconic, time-ravaged visage. 

The Death of Louis XIV screens April 28-30 only at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. For more details, including showtimes and tickets, click here.