Let me tell you, this premise was not one I was dying to visit. Does anyone nowadays care how Louis XIV died? I certainly didn’t. Nevertheless, Albert Serra imagines the event as though it were a slowly deflating balloon in a burnished Baroque painting, agonizing on all levels but also extraordinarily textured as the king’s body gradually becomes more desiccated and putrid. And as his health wanes, the people attending him look more and more incompetent as they dither over appropriate remedies, which adds a lot of subtle humour to the otherwise grim proceedings. Jean-Pierre Léaud is marvelous despite his character’s immobility, using his face and hands to convey the regal rigour needed to maintain some semblance of dignity while his leg is literally rotting in the bedsheets. Whether the absurdity surrounding him overshadows his feeble attempts at preserving his eminence is for the viewer to decide. One can see it both ways without losing the scope and purpose of Serra’s vision.
There are also so many memorable scenes here, but my favourite may be the long take when Louis nibbles his biscuit, chews dispassionately for some moments, sips his wine and then gives up the endeavour, the camera resting on his disillusioned face for minutes on end. This is the moment a man who once luxuriated in decadence and gluttony suddenly realizes that such pleasures are now at an end (along with his life). It’s simple in execution, yet the way it’s given so much gravity by Serra and Léaud is ridiculously satisfying. A close second is the moment Louis dies and all his courtiers are trying with all their might to shed tears, but to no avail. It beautifully encapsulates the funny-sad level this endeavour operates on.