For French Revolution buffs, the depiction of the passing of the Sun King on film is a fascinating premise. While there were kings after the French monarch Louis XIV, none would capture the reverence, prestige or fear that he inspired. His death led to the slow, miserable decline of the French monarchy, culminating in the inane but well-meaning Louis XVI’s execution in an increasingly radical Republic of France. How could anyone capture the death of such a critical figure on film?
Very quietly, as it turns out. “The Death of King Louis XIV” locks the audience firmly in the bedroom of the Sun King as gangrene takes over his body, presenting a moody, uncomfortable look at the death of a god amongst men. Almost every single scene takes place in this room, as Louis’ aides and court must cater to his every whim, waiting until he inevitably dies. As someone whose life was put on hold for four months until his cat finally died, it is eerie how close to home a lot of scenes hit. The long takes of Louis being lifted out of bed or screaming for water are uncomfortable, upsetting and genuine.
It’s also impressive to see director Albert Serra depict such a famous and — for the most part — revered monarch and present him in this almost pathetic light. One of the defining moments of the film comes within the first 10 minutes when various court members gather in his room because Louis is too weak to join a party. He calls someone to get him a hat and proceeds to salute the crowd and receive some of the most patronizing applause ever caught on film. Louis XIV no doubt received constant adoration his entire life, but here it feels like adults cheering a toddler for making it across the room.
Unfortunately, while the depiction of Louis XIV and the mood of the court are wonderful, the film struggles to focus into a central theme or give much weight to the characters around him. When two characters discuss bringing in a university doctor and debate tradition versus modernization, the audience realizes it’s already the 40-minute mark and this is the first time either of them have been given character depth beyond how they treat Louis.
We do finally get a fascinating commentary on inevitability and the endless cycle of monarchs. When Louis ultimately passes, the mourning is brief — instead, the public laments not having realized sooner that it was gangrene, and promise to do better next time. It’s at that moment that it becomes clear that the court didn’t really love Louis — they loved the crown. This cycle simply resets for a new king. It’s a shame that wasn’t better set up.
Word of warning — “The Death of King Louis XIV” is a slow burn. Between the nearly two-hour run time, lack of location changes and long takes, the action always runs at a mellow pace. But despite its flaws, it’s a beautifully shot, fascinating film that takes a strange approach to capturing the legacy of one of history’s definitive monarchs.
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