The most thrilling part of the debut of this film at a special séance nearly over two, hours including introductions of the actors by Thierry Frémaux at the Salle de Soixantième, was the presence of Jean Pierre Léaud, now 71, veteran actor since François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" at the age of 14. His speech was short and he thanked the audience for coming. Director Albert Serra was with him.
Though this absolute monarch of a grand reign of culture and reason had survived several near fatal diseases, his leg developed gangrene, which quickly spread to both legs. Serra adheres to royal documentation of the demise of Louis XIV that was recorded in detail. The French regent counsels his five year old grandson, Louis, Dauphin of Anjou and the future Louis XV, to not engage in the vanity of architecture as his court has. His subjects love the king but also are prepared to abandon him in order to win favors with the change in command.
"The Death of Louis XIV" is a challenge for those who must come to terms with the conditions under which it is made and dispense with the conventions used to create dramatic intensity in film. Seldom are audiences subjected to such a taxonomy of medical procedure and its consequences. A team of four doctors assisted Louis XIV's primary physician Fagon (brilliantly play by Patrick D’Assumçao) but were none the wiser in their diagnosis. It was suggested early on that the King’s leg be amputated, and even the King requested to save what was left of him.
Albert Serra's film is nearly two hours long. We become engaged with such a contemplative chronicle of events for reasons that the filmmaker gives us—to relate the facts concerning a royal death, not to shock us with agony or suffering or to make use of the narrative techniques to enhance the drama such as music or bravado. Our engagement is as witness to the subtlety of the death of the longest reigning Regent in Europe. The film provides the opportunity to follow an historical event three centuries after its occurrence in the relative matter it which it happened.
In the French court, the spectacle of childbirth, marital consummation and death was visible to the courtesans. Our contemporary notions of privacy stand in complete opposition in this regard. What we see is a powerful King who becomes progressively ill within a matter of months, shown in screen time. Alas the surgical team and a quack who produces an elixir made from "miraculous animal parts" are not able to save the king.
"The Death of Louis XIV" is a cinematic experience that is unrivaled of late. Jean-Pierre Léaud's gestures, mannerisms and elocution as Louis XIV ebb and flow during the course of his illness and his performance is enrapturing . We are invited as spectators, as privileged courtiers, to witness this event.