The Death of Louis XIV film review: A remarkable portrait of the unpleasantness of a lingering death

Dougie Gerrard
The Death of Louis XIV

The conceit of Catalan director Albert Serra’s new film goes no further than its title; over 115 minutes Louis XIV (Jean-Pierre Leaud) slips towards eternity.

Louis died of gangrene, and we watch as the disease spreads, first confined to his foot and dismissed by a disbelieving doctor, and then colonising his leg and kidney.

He is in almost constant pain; pain is the film’s organizing principle. Every scene features either a display of the King’s agony or a discussion of how it might hinder his royal duties. Ordinarily, pain is shown on film via dramatic outbursts, but here it is mundane; a low groan that lasts the entirety of a conversation between his doctors, a strained facial expression that slightly slurs his speech.

Leaud’s performance is unexpectedly light. He’ just as captivating as he was 59 years ago, when he delivered his career defining performance as Antoine Donel in The 400 Blows. His King is not an imperious autocrat, barking out orders; illness and age have softened him, and he is witty and kind towards his subjects, though he seems weary of endlessly performing for them.

However, it’s Serra’s direction that dominates. He’s committed to an obsessive kind of realist formalism, whereby he seeks to represent the world as it was in 1715 by very precisely recreating its minutiae. The film takes place largely in the dark, in the King’s quarters, and the combination of composition and sound design (flies buzzing around a black gangrenous leg) gives the final section a real sense of slow death, stale and stultifying and delirious.

At times, Serra’s fixation on detail becomes almost tedious. Perhaps with a different lead it would’ve been. However, Leaud delivers, and the result is a haunting, sensory (and occasionally very funny) lamentation of life’s end.

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