The Death of Louis XIV ★★★★½

In Albert Serra's THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV, the face of Jean-Pierre Léaud, as France's longest reigning monarch, Louis XIV, lies shrouded in a great dome of hair, his regal features dimmed but no less striking when lost in the giant pompadour wig. He is a monarch in decline, a dim shadow of a man about to be lost in time, surrounded by groveling yes-men and sycophants whose bumbling attempts to affirm his every whim are in fact hastening his death rather than preventing it.

There's something truly haunting about watching one of France's most legendary actors in such a role. After a lifetime of great performances, from his iconic freeze-frame in Francois Truffaut's THE 400 BLOWS, to countless Jean-Luc Godard films (ALPHAVILLE, PIERROT LE FOU, and MASCULIN FEMININ, just to name a few), to Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS, and Jean Eustache's THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE, to Aki Kaurismäki's LE HAVRE and LA VIE DE BOHEME, and Jean Cocteau's TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS, Léaud has earned his place in the cinematic pantheon, having worked with some of the greatest French filmmakers of all time. THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV almost feels like a meta-theatrical elegy for a titan of the silver screen (like THE 400 BLOWS, its most powerful moment is a freeze-frame of the actor's face). But it is also a quietly chilling portrait of fading power.

When word of the Sun King's quickly deteriorating health gets out, friends, acquaintances, and attendants flock from all over to catch one last glimpse of him. By the end of the film, they literally tear him apart, all but feasting on the remains as they divide him up. There's something both coldly ironic and grimly hilarious about the way they scrape and bow, politely applauding ("bravo, sire!") just because he managed to eat a bite of his meal. Serra shoots the film like a classical drama, composing each frame like its own painting. The result is often breathtaking (it's an undeniably gorgeous film), but not without meaning. Everything is carefully arranged, the dying king is constantly bathed in a warm, glowing light, and yet the specter of death hangs over every frame. This is how power ends, aged and shriveled, with little to show for it. What good is all the extravagance and all the power when those who surround him can do little to help? Without their leader telling them what to do, they are helpless; easily duped by charlatans and awed by the false sense of majesty now lying prone on an opulent bed.

"We'll do better next time" the head physician says directly to the camera, almost as an apology; but will they? Or is this just how we react to the idea of power? THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV strips away the mythic reverence for monarchs and shows us something else, a pitiable, helpless human being with no one to turn to when death finally comes to call. It's a heartbreaking film, made even more so when Louis implores his young heir to be a better king than he. It is a quietly powerful examination of power, wealth, and mortality that lingers and troubles, anchored by a truly magisterial performance by a lion in winter. It's a hushed and exhilarating stunner.