Albert Serra bothers critics. In the last 10 years, the 41-year-old Catalan has made a handful of slow films and installations. Although they’ve won him a small, vocal fan base, most critics demur. “These modest, meaningless shocks reverberate a little, of course, but are less notable than Mr. Serra’s grave self-seriousness and his embrace of so many familiar art film strategies, from nonprofessional actors to long takes, cryptic aperçus and silences,” Manohla Dargis opines on Story of My Death (2013). Writing about that film for Artforum, Paul Dallas says: “Serra’s ponderous ode to excess somehow manages to beguile with its lugubrious tone and painterly digital video compositions.”
When his work travels the film festival circuit, critics inevitably conduct interviews with him. In them, he comes off as a wannabe Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with his many-ringed fingers, thick mustache, mismatched earrings, and sunglasses. In a recent video interview with MUBI Notebook, he characteristically rambles on about being a formalist and having no feelings when making movies. He looks and talks like a phony.
When films like Birdsong (2008) and Story of My Death are so mesmerizing and atmospheric though, such critical reception melts away. Trust the film, not the filmmaker. This is certainly the case (perhaps even more so) with his latest feature, The Death of Louis XIV (2016), playing this week at the New York Film Festival. True to its title, the film follows the last days of the Sun King (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Bedridden and dying from cardiac arrhythmia and gangrene, he’s surrounded by an entourage of servants and physicians. Set almost exclusively in Louis’ bedchamber, the film is both boring and riveting, grand and minimal.
The movie begins outdoors; servants push the King, seated in a wheelchair, around the Palace of Versailles. In the following shot, we’re in the King’s bedchamber, where we’ll remain for the rest of the film. Propped up by pillows, Louis greets an entourage of aristocrats, confidantes, physicians, and servants gathered around his bed. The crowd applauds him as he eats soft-boiled eggs, as if Louis gave a marvelous performance. As the film makes its slow progression, the King’s movements become increasingly limited. First he lies on pillows, then he is supine; his gangrenous leg is jet-black and his face chalky white. This is a film of a body — an important one at that — in decay. This is a body with a weak voice, one that emits agonizing sounds of pain as well as heavy, strained breathing.
Léaud is exceptional; he blurs the line between performing and behaving. He does so much with so little. Certain twitches in the face signal the degree of pain he’s experiencing. He comes off as grave yet boyish, even underneath powder and wig, at the terminal stage of the King’s life. Near the beginning of the film, he plays with his dogs; he beams, he smiles, he’s the happiest he’ll be in the entire movie. And in the middle of the film, in a touching moment, he shares lessons with his great-grandson (Aksil Meznad), who is next in line to be king. “Don’t imitate me in what concerns the love for the buildings. Nor the love I had for the war. Instead, make peace with your neighbors,” he tells the future Louis XV, embracing him.
As the King’s health wanes, servants wait on his every order. A sudden urge for water in the wee hours of the morning takes forever. When someone finally brings him a glass, Louis bats it away because the water’s not in a particular crystal glass. Meanwhile, the King’s main physician, Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao), and valet, Blouin (Marc Susini), determine how best to treat him. First, they send for doctors trained at the Sorbonne, who advise bloodletting. Fagon and Blouin scratch that plan and call in a doctor from Marseille, a Dr. Le Brun (Vicenç Altaió). Wrong move; Le Brun is a quack who considers smallpox like roses and waxes on pain and beauty, before administering an elixir that does more harm than good.
Whether taking place on or around the King’s bed, the action unfolds as if in real time. It’s as if history is happening in the present tense. This is the result of the film’s production. The Death of Louis XIV began as an instillation piece. The Centre Pompidou commissioned Serra to depict the death of Léaud as the Sun King. Léaud was supposed to be lying in a bed within a glass cage for 15 days. The project fell through, but Serra resurrected the idea for a movie. Serra and his director of photography, Jonathan Ricquebourg, used three cameras and shot continuously, linearly, in an empty castle. They achieve dimly lit, painterly compositions. Every other shot is a close up of a figure in profile, something that occurs on fewer occasions in Serra’s prior work, perhaps because they’re all primarily set outdoors. Moreover, where Quixotic (2006), Birdsong, and Story of My Death are puckish, The Death of Louis XIV is sober with just a whiff of irony. Sickness and death fill the film’s rarefied air, conflicting with the lush confines of the bedroom. Critics will critique, haters will hate, and filmmakers will film — and this particular enfant terrible has made a breakthrough as a director. The King is dead, long live the King.