The Sun King is going down. The monarch’s eyes, baleful, shrewd and world-weary all at once, take in the royal court’s intrigue around his approaching death, which arrives first slowly, then fast. Hushed and cerebral, Albert Serra’s atmospheric film plays out like a slow-motion pavane of an autocrat’s glory, wiped away by a force more powerful than any mortal.
French acting legend Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the titular king mostly bedridden under mounds of cascading wigs, his aquiline features recalling François Mitterrand, another enigmatic French pharaoh. Once tout-puissant, it’s all le roi can do now to cope with pain and survive the day, surrounded by doctors, courtiers, and priests who jostle for influence around him. Murmuring sycophants and pretty women exclaim “Bravo!” when he manages to chew and choke down a solitary biscuit.
Léaud delivers a wistful yet sharp performance conveying the range of the king’s moods in his decline. We see in him moments of unexpected tenderness as he lavishes affection on his dogs and cuddles the boy king of Naples, whom he urges with a touch of melancholy to become a good ruler. Sudden rage explodes as his gangrenous leg flares up or a valet brings the wrong glass. He brightens at the sound of a faraway martial band, though, a reminder of past vigor and conquest.
Terrified that viewers will be bored by a sluggish past, American and British filmmakers often resort to caricature in period dramas, puffing up the action quotient through torture scenes and bouts pitting lusty wenches against cackling backstabbers. Not so Death, whose attendants circle the king and each other with measured, steely caution. The film holds back from modish wallowing in sumptuous chateau interiors by using a constricting artistic device: except for the film’s very first scene outdoors, director Serra keeps the camera tightly focused on the monarch in his bed, chaise, or corner. This choice lets us feel how narrow the king’s world has become, dark and cordoned off for all of its lavish brocades and guttering candelabras.
So the movie plays with the balance between the king’s luster and the encroaching shadows. As the king fades and after the doctor tries to feed him, the latter coolly says to a colleague, “It’s so ludicrous” (the French word is dérisoire, more aptly “trifling” or “useless”). Even the tiny few of us who have absolute power only have it until the moment we don’t. The Death of Louis XIV absorbingly plays out the last gasp of the Sun King’s fading radiance before the pitch-black, enveloping void swallows it up for good.