Actor Jean-Pierre Léaud has worked with a long line of Important Auteurs in his near life-long career: Cocteau, Godard, Varda, Assayas. Only one has defined him as a cultural icon, though: François Truffaut. After casting the actor as the pint-sized star of his seminal work The 400 Blows, Truffaut fashioned Léaud as a human talisman of the French New Wave by continuing the story of his same character from that film, Antoine Doinel, in several other features. Cinephiles have watched Doinel, and by extension Leaud, grow up on celluloid, a journey that’s now been effectively completed in the recent period piece The Death of Louis XIV. Where as Léaud entered the scene a young, poor schoolboy in 400 Blows, he’s leaving it a dying, old king in The Death of Louis XIV. He explained in an interview, “The line has been crossed. I went all the way. I am not acting in that film. I am someone who is waiting for the meeting [with death].” The sadness of that statement and the cultural significance of Léaud’s effective departure from cinema are both undeniable. What is up for debate, however, is if the film itself is at all worthwhile when stripped of its context.
At the start of The Death of Louis XIV, Léaud’s historical monarch is already bedridden by an injury to his leg. He indulges in small joys like playing with his beautifully groomed hounds or putting on a show of tipping his hat to the women who visit his chamber, but mostly he is immobile and in pain. Doctors are confident they can treat the king without amputating his leg to stave off encroaching gangrene. Consultants as wide ranging as university professors and common snake oil salesmen are summoned to treat the king in a variety of highly questionable methods, all while his leg continually worsens, turns black, and, as both the title and Wikipedia promise, takes his life. There’s a (very) dry sense of humor in the way these royal doctors hold onto old world superstitions & remedies. They humorously excite with any sign that the king’s condition is improving, even openly applauding when he manages to swallow a single bite of food. Even the king’s eventual death doesn’t stop them from examining his condition with an unending dedication to optimism. In a concluding autopsy, they examine his exhumed organs for signs of inflammation and abnormality. That scene somehow sticks to the same exact tone that dominated the two hours that preceded it. Even in death, nothing changes.
If there’s some kind of metaphorical correlation between the ways the dying king & Léaud ‘s career were doted on, yet left to rot, I was either too dense to understand it or too bored to fully care. The Death of Louis XIV is above all else a highfalutin bore, recommendable only to the most dedicated of French New Wave academics who have a completionist’s compulsion to watch their once-youthful mascot die. The film perfectly captures the stillness & exhaustion of waiting for death and occasionally searches for the humor of clashing the indignity of that condition with an ineffective excess of wealth. There’s a perverse joke in seeing Léaud’s upsetting little egg-shaped body slowly fail & give up while dressed in expensive fabrics & oversized wigs. The film also has a visually striking dedication to natural lighting, affording it the painting-in-motion look of something like The Witch or The Libertine. That sense of visual craft and the quiet meta humor of Léaud bowing out in such a compromised sense if indignity vs. royal reverence could’ve been captured in a series of photographs or even a short film, however. The Death of Louis XIV does very little to justify its medium as a feature film outside some occasional humor in the dialogue of unqualified medical men who watch idly as their King dies in what feels like real time. Mostly, the audience watches along with them, listening to the sound of a ticking clock. As an academic exercise, that might have some significance in helping contextualize Léaud’s career as an artist. As a cinematic experience, however, it feels like waiting for death, which is not an activity I’d readily recommend.