First, Robert Rossellini gave us “The Taking of Power by Louis XIV,” and now Catalan director Albert Serra offers a bookend of sorts: In “The Death of Louis XIV,” we watch as power is taken from the Sun King. This claustrophobic and often grimly funny procedural stays largely confined to the bedside of the debilitated monarch (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) as he deteriorates during his final days, endlessly poked and prodded by the big medical brains of his court.
Closer to the waggish spirit of Serra’s first two features — the “Don Quixote” riff “Honor of the Knights” (2006), and “Birdsong” (2008), a deadpan take on the Three Wise Men — than it is to his arthritic 2013 Locarno winner, “The Story of My Death” (which incorporated elements of the Casanova and Dracula legends), “The Death of Louis XIV” continues the director’s overall project of bringing larger-than-life figures down to human scale, and imbuing literary and historical tales with real physicality and immediacy. Facing further festival play and a forthcoming release from Cinema Guild, the new movie seems likely to win Serra his widest audience yet.
As minimalist as Serra’s films can be, they are rarely boring, and often given to wry wit. “The Death of Louis XIV,” which Serra derived from the accounts of two courtiers present during the king’s last days in 1715, even culminates in one of the all-time-great-gallows-humor punchlines, a worthy rival to “They are all equal now,” from “Barry Lyndon.” The director’s aesthetic perversity extends to casting screen legend, charisma magnet, and honorary Palme recipient Léaud in a role that keeps him almost entirely prostrate. The part often forces the actor to appear nonverbal and writhing in pain, in a wig that can make him look like a giant poodle. Patrick d’Assumçao plays the closest of Louis’ physicians, the one who most seems to have the king’s comfort in mind.
In the movie’s only real glimpse of the outdoors, an ailing Louis is first seen being pushed in a wheelchair against a lush Watteauvian landscape. Initially, he is still hale enough to pant in unison with the beloved court dogs, and it seems as though Versailles’ collective relief is in order when he briefly regains his appetite. But his current illness is a one-way street, and most of the film is given to hovering over and around him as he worsens. Attendants put ointment on his legs and bleed him repeatedly, ostensibly to stave off the spread of gangrene, before finally administering last rites. When a crank doctor from Marseille insists on giving him an elixir whose ingredients include bull sperm and frog fat, Louis struggles to imbibe. The abuse to the king’s body continues even after his death; Serra watches as the regal remains are removed in barehanded surgery and pored over (“It’s a good size,” someone remarks of his intestines). Truly, this is cadaver-handling fit for a king.
If Rossellini’s film was an intelligent chronicle of political calculation, in which the young Louis showed a shrewd recognition of the importance of symbolism in accruing power and used gaudiness as a tool for wooing a jealous aristocracy, “The Death of Louis XIV” depicts the endurance of such protocols at the end of his reign. The members of Louis’ retinue, far more used to politicking than to confronting mortality, do their best to save face, unwilling to admit helplessness or ignorance at the prospect of the king’s inevitable death.
Yet if that makes “The Death of Louis XIV” sound like a slog, the vividness of the realization — with a sound design that emphasizes every chew and tick of the clock — makes the movie continually engrossing. Not only are the sets and costumes appropriately flamboyant on what had to be a low budget, but the camera work in the king’s dimly lit room also makes an excellent case for digital’s dexterity with low-light shooting.