French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud lies bedridden for two hours in Albert Serra’s exquisite, slow-burning 18th-century take on the agonising final days of the famous Sun King, shot with such a high fidelity to history that one might mistake it for documentary authenticity.
Cast: Jean-Pierre Leaud, Patrick d’Assumcao, Marc Susini
Plot: 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.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
International Sales: Capprici Films
Subject Matter: Moderate – Mortality; Sun King
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Very Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
The Death of Louis XIV is not for everyone, and even for slow cinema purists, Albert Serra’s work may prove to be challenging. It is, however, a more accessible take than, say, Liberte (2019), Serra’s follow-up, which is difficult to watch because of its contentious subject matter and even slower pacing.
Here in Louis XIV, we have a familiar face to hypnotise us as French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud plays the famous Sun King.
It is a role of few words and long stares as Serra charts the agonising final days as the king lies bedridden after suffering from acute pain in the leg. Gangrene is the cause, and for two hours, we see Leaud waste away in front of our eyes—this is mortality as cinema.
At the time, the actor’s health was declining, and thus in a somewhat artistically perverse way, it is haunting to see him play a historical figure who, as the title of the film suggests, dies.
“You seem to consider disease to be a sublimination of the body.”
Serra’s work is exquisite in its production design and mise-en-scene, lit mostly by candlelight that is reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). It is also very ‘interiorised’, where almost the entire picture was shot in the king’s bedroom.
As the King’s trusted advisors, doctors and loved ones gather to pray for a miraculous recovery, Serra’s deliberate and precise filmmaking approach only heightens the occasion, giving the impression that it had been shot with such a high fidelity to history that one might mistake it for documentary authenticity.
It’s been nearly a month and I’m still thinking about the film, as if I had time-travelled to the 18th century to witness the death of one of France’s greatest kings.