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  1. #16
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV (Albert Serra 2016)



    Léaud dies for us, with authoritative inertia

    Serra is working in a similar style to his Casanova film (too much so!) but this time has something concentrated and at times grand - and he has Jean-Pierre Léaud, who if not the "only" person to play the dying king as he's claimed, is a hard choice to better. Being, if not quite near death, still rather worn down myself from lengthy visits to the Centre Pompidou Renée Magritte show, "The Color Line" at the Musée Branly, and the breathtaking but exhausting and mobbed Icônes de l'art moderne show of the Shchukin Collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Frank Gehry's airy bubble palace, I'll refer my readers to the Critics Roundup for Serra's film for a mosaic of salient comments and just add a few of my own.

    There, you will see excerpts from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who only hints at why he finds this "gripping" and calls Léaud's performance "exquisite" and "minimalist." "Hell man," Errol Flynn's last words are said to have been, "dyin's easy." And indeed it does not require much motion to die. The quintessentially cinematic Léaud knows to underplay it.

    Josh Timmermann of Vancouver is also right: the film is largely about "wrong-headed doctors" and "syncophantic courtiers" - and, I might add, we have seen noble death sequences that emphasized these aspects in historical movies before. This is among other things a reminder of how far medicine has come since 1715. Maybe Leo Goldsmith is right, that Serra was disingenuous in denying the significance of casting Léaud: that his own physical decline is a part of what's moving. Cinephiles know him as the boy in The 400 Blows and the frisky Antoine Doinel. Here he is fat and degenerate-looking. Showing up is 80 percent of life, and Léaud is showing up as Léaud as well as donning the apparel of a dying king, arguably the greatest in history.

    Note the comment of Daniel Fairfax in Senses of Cinema: "Very few actors are capable of holding our attention for 100 minutes of screen time while essentially remaining supine throughout the film. Léaud, one of the most captivating figures in the history of film, achieves this feat with ease. His very being is cinematic." Léaud indeed was always completely at home in front of a camera: he knows how just to "be." And dying's "easy" (in Flynn's dying words) because it's passive. This is what makes the experience of the film both grand and tragicomic. The king's accoutrements are noble - the cloths, the gilt, the big fuzzy wig, Léaud's now imposing schnazz, the team of doctors, courtiers, and servants; but his passivity and his predicament are sometimes humiliating, or even comic.

    Technically, and economically, Serra makes the film intensely claustrophobic. Though he shows us the plotting, conniving entourage, he builds a series of relentless closeups and immobile shots echoing the king's own inability for most of the film to get out of bed.

    Several writers refer to Roberto Rossellini's historical neorealist film for French TV The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, that bright and energetic, this dark and gloomy (and, like the Casanova film, seems embalmed in molasses, which makes this, despite what some critics say, not a film of mainstream as well as festival/cinephile appeal). But they have a kinship too, because Serra's approach verges on neorealism, a cinematic approach to history deep into physicality and uninterested in narrative or making "points." The accoutrements are nice, but the history you'll have to read up on for yourself. He also spares us many disgusting details, however, that a more conventional modern film might have included.

    Whatever adjectives we apply to Serra's film, grand, strange, melancholy, elegant, it is a dark, moody, highly crafted yet experimental memento mori, a reminder that death is the great leveler. It is also, as the eternally hard-to-please Cahiers du Cinéma observes, "vaguely beautiful, but above all very boring"! Le Figaro calls Léaud's performance "fascinating and monotonous." It's a waxworks tour de force: for very long takes, in the final dying phase he just barely moves, then does not move at all. Watching kings die is thought-provoking, but it's also, at times, like the proverbial watching paint dry.

    La mort de Louis XIV, 115 mins., debuted at Cannes. It won the Prix Jean Vigo 2016 (feature film) and at Cannes Jean-Pierre Léaud was given a Palme d'or d'honneur, a fitting recognition of the legendary actor whose performance here signals twilight years (he seems older than his actual 72); 14 other international festivals including Toronto, New York, Vancouver and London. French theatrical release 2 Nov. 2016 to extremely favorable reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.9/5 based on 22 reviews), but note the negative comments I've cited. Screened for this review at MK2 Hautefeuille AKA Côté St-Michel, Paris, 3 Nov. 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-18-2017 at 07:24 PM.


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