Europeans may be able to identify the conniving players of 17th-century France in “Louis, Enfant Roi” without a scorecard, but non-history buffs offshore will be baffled. Central perf by Maxime Mansion as adolescent Louis XIV is excellent, and $ 11 million budget is all on screen.
A lavish and lengthy portrait of the extended dysfunctional family and constant upheaval that deeply influenced the future Sun King in his intrigue-filled youth, pic is an initially confusing but sometimes enthralling succession of scenes peopled by historic figures.
Betraying one’s friends and relatives was a national pastime during the War of the Fronde (1648-52), a time of scheming rivalries, decadence and civil war so complex that even the best historians have trouble explaining it. Director/co-writer Roger Planchon’s brave but perhaps ill-advised tactic is to present the morass of shifting allegiances helter-skelter — because that is how young Louis would have seen things. Matters eventually grow clearer to mirror Louis’ growing political sophistication, but opening confusion will throw most spectators.
Pic does, however, effectively convey the events’ unmistakable lasting effects on Louis, who is shown growing from a giggly child to a heavy-hearted young monarch aware of the uses and drawbacks of power.
Foreigners — Louis’ mother, Anne of Austria (highly capable Carmen Maura), who was Spanish, and Prime Minister Mazarin (Paolo Graziosi), who was Italian — ruled France in tandem until Louis took over on his 13th birthday in late 1651.
Louis’ younger brother, Philippe, the Duke of Anjou (Jocelyn Quivrin), addresses the camera with clever, somewhat snotty commentary about how the grown-ups carry on. More of his irreverent spin on events would have been welcome.
Predominantly stage-trained ensemble cast is fine across the board. Serge Dupire cuts a dashing figure as Conde, whom Louis was obliged to betray. Femmes, from classy to vulgar, capture the full range of womanly influence.
Sex is ever-present as both recreation and bargaining tool. In one amusing scene, Louis’ sexual initiation is solemnly treated as an affair of state.
Wide-screen lensing is often academic but plays up fine production design at court and on the battlefield. Sprightly baroque score is used sparingly.
Pic has humor, pageantry and sweeping adventure, but begins to come across like several slightly repetitive seasons of a juicy soap opera stuffed into one elegant package. So much cruel change and concerted libertine activity grows wearing, as surely it must have for citizens of the day.
Planchon, incidentally, has cast himself as the fellow in charge of chamber pots.