King Louis XIV was an avid backgammon player, and one day while playing with his courtiers produced a move that seemingly went against the rules. Louis thought he was in the right, but the courtiers remained silent, not wanting to go against the King’s wishes. To resolve the deadlock, the King called in the Count de Grammont saying he needed his opinion on a dispute. “Sire, I’m afraid your majesty is in the wrong,” the Count said. “Well, how can you say that,” the King replied. “You haven’t even heard the question.” “Because Sire,” the Count continued, “had the matter been doubtful, all these gentlemen present would have given the point to your majesty.”
The complications arising from the long-held rituals of monarchs are explored thoughtfully in Albert Serra’s latest film The Death of Louis XIV, now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in conjunction with a retrospective of French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud, best known for his work in François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel film series.
Based on extensive medical records and the memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon, the story takes place from August 9, 1715 until September 1, 1715, when Louis XIV(Léaud) having ruled France for the past 72 years is suffering an embolism in his leg due to cardiac arrhythmia. The King’s First Surgeon Georges Mareschal (Bernard Belin) examines the leg and recommends that they amputate. Louis refuses, and struggles to run the country from his bedside as his health continues to decline by the hour.
According to the official medical diary of the King, Louis was no stranger to poor health and nearly died on numerous occasions: from syphilis at age five, from a fever at thirty-five, from a fistula at forty-five and from diabetes with gangrenous complications at seventy. As the King’s situation becomes more and more dire, the court turns to charlatans and snake-oil salesmen. One memorable hoaxer, a man named Brun (Vicenç Altaió) from Marseille, gives the King ten drops of a cure-all made of bull semen.
In the end nothing can save the King, and as France’s longest reigning royal lies on an operating table, his organs piled onto a nearby cart, Louis’ physician Guy-Crescent Fagon (Patrick D’Assumcao) shakes his head and says, “Well gentlemen, we’ll do better next time.”
Serra is tremendously interested in myth and its relation to the ordinary. For the director, the banality of myth is most curious, and how history can hinge on something so human as a fever or an improper diet. Here, Louis is god-like to the outside world, residing in the palace of Versailles surrounded by the kind of opulence that seems forever out of reach to the rest of the population. But it’s only when digging beneath the surface of myth that one finds the fragile components making up the legend.
Obviously one of myth’s strongest and most valued attributes is exaggeration, and it’s through exaggeration that the typical lifecycle of a being can be altered; the most popular perhaps being death. How many times have characters from historical or spiritual texts either escaped death, or used it as a conduit in granting salvation or enlightenment to the still-living population? A king doesn’t die a slow, agonizing death, his leg rotting from gangrene. A king dies in battle, or clean and peaceful in the comfort of his enormous bed. Serra successfully shows how death is lived, and dispels any romantic notions that a monarch’s death is any less gruesome than that of an ordinary citizen. Beneath the fine clothes of the King is a heart the same size and shape as his subjects; a heart Louis would ultimately donate to the Jesuit director of the house on Saint Antoine Street which also held the remains of his father.
Serra also employs the tool of repetition to great effect, utilizing it to enhance the monotonous spectacle of the King’s pain. The film is set almost exclusively in Louis’ bedroom, providing the viewer the opportunity to stand in as one of the physicians poking and prodding the King’s aching body. What’s interesting is that unlike certain animals who sense death and hide away to spend their final moments in solitude, very often humans do the opposite. Either by choice or not, an individual usually has an audience at their bedside; doctors, nurses or family members hovering over them. This presence can be complicated, because although a person may want to rest and be left alone, there’s also a sense that if they turn the living away then they succumb to death more quickly. These vigils are seldom described as exciting, and when reenacted on screen can risk losing the audience in their monotony. Serra though avoids this trap, using repetition instead to dissect the absurd measures humans will pursue in order to understand and preserve their own lives
It is often said that the only thing humans know for certain is death, and what the film shows is that although death itself is predictable, the rituals and revelations arising from it continue to remain profound and mysterious.