Day 67/220

Studio, Vizille

Night.

Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV: In what must qualify as a modern masterpiece, Serra imagines the final days of suffering of the Sun King, after he contracts a fatal gangrene in the foot. The king’s gradual corporeal disintegration and his total loss of control contrasts his reputation as a voracious, omnipotent monarch, and his decomposing physical self becomes a battleground between the forces of secularization and sacralization of the human body. As his entourage tries to keep his normal functions going by feeding him and the clergymen absolve him of sensual sins, the doctors take on the biological mysteries of mankind and try to fight what appears to be the brute force of nature herself. What Serra’s magnificent film depicts, in effect, through the decay of one person’s body is the epochal birth of the Rational Man. The king’s organs, extracted for the Church’s reliquary, are profane and exemplary entrails, objects of scientific study for the doctors. Nothing more, but nothing less. (I’d like to see this double-billed with Abdellatif Kechiche’s Black Venus.) The Death of Louis XIV is unremittingly intense, plunging us into the final hours of a life in such a thoroughgoing manner that the felt rhythm of the film slows down as it unfolds. Serra abstains from using easy fade-outs in the montage, even when the scenario completely justifies it, and the king’s progressing debilitation is all that signals the passing of days. The entire work thus feels like one long last sigh. A clock ticks throughout, recalling the film’s distant ancestor Ordet. Occasional chirp of birds and the sound of rain, a soaring musical interlude. Amid the physicians’ conversations, Jean-Pierre Léaud’s groans and increasingly incomprehensible mutterings. The Death of Louis XIV is equally a documentary about Léaud’s face and voice. whose minor trembles and strains become subjects of diegetic and spectatorial interest. Léaud’s is a career-crowning performance, where it’s hard to tell what’s performed and what’s not, how much of it is Louis XIV and how much Jean-Pierre Léaud. Shot in natural or candlelight, the film looks gorgeous. The gold, red and yellow hues, the chiaroscuro and the mood of fatal intimacy recalls Rembrandt, but it’s painterly without any overt imitation. Comparisons will only serve to overlook the amazing geometric balance of some of the compositions. Serra’s film begins with cinematic movement (“Push” commands the king) and ends with the absolute stasis of painting: a stylistic counterpoint to the forward historical thrust of the scenario.

Day 67/220

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