Albert Serra’s new film, The Death of Louis XIV, has one of the most ‘does what it says on the tin’ titles of any film in recent memory. From the very first scene in which the ailing, aged monarch (played by French New Wave poster boy Jean-Pierre Leaud) ineffectually opens his mouth to either gasp for air or search for words that now escape him, he may as well already be dead. In fact, if there were any kindness in the world, he would just be left to expire, but in the hands of fearful doctors, his existence is protracted for day after agonising day, as the king himself shrinks into death.
These scenes in which the king’s doctor Fagon (Patrick d’Assumcao) and valet Blouin (Marc Susini) attempt to remedy his fatal illnesses, all the while forcing out the lie that he’s regaining his strength, are grotesque and embarrassing. It can be a tough watch, but to slowly die as your old age catches up with you, and to do so as publically as a king had to, is nightmarish, and Leaud’s terrific, often wordless central performance captures that perfectly. It’s a very internal display, but moments where he briefly lets emotions break through are very touching – in particular the moment where Louis realises that his beloved dogs will outlive him.
Incredible make-up work melds with Serra’s merciless direction to bring the audience into the sensory space of Louis as his sickness overwhelms him. Lights are blinding, sounds come from disorienting directions, and whenever Louis awakes in a sweat and desperately thirsty, it took all my willpower to not leave the screening to grab a glass of water. Whenever Louis is alone, Serra’s painterly shots have him fading into an inky blackness, as he enters the nether zone between life and death, a technique somehow both calming and sinister.
It’s not a film for everyone. It’s incredibly, sometimes frustratingly, slow, emotionally buttoned up to a fault, and most of the scenes which don’t actually feature the king are rather superfluous. You could also easily make the case that nothing really happens – we barely ever leave the king’s bedroom and the whole story takes place over just a few days that bleed into one another. Yet, it’s also a deeply immersive experience, and when the soundtrack eventually kicked in after around an hour of solely diegetic sound, it was startling and drew attention to just how real Serra’s world felt. The Death of Louis XIV is more than the sum of its impressive parts, every element working in tandem to bring you into both the 18th Century French court and the painful, tragic process of the end of life.