The Death of Louis XIV (2017)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bride Wore Black (La Mariée était en noir, 1968)

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In my reviews of The Legend of Boggy Creek and Anna to the Infinite Power, I mentioned my fascination with Maitland McDonough’s old TV Guide column “Ask Flick Chick,” in which she answered questions about films in general and provided readers with the titles of films that had haunted their subconsciouses for decades. Both Creek and Anna were films that were frequently asked about, as individual readers remembered disparate elements from each, and there were several other movies that would reappear as the answer to a new question with some regularity. Another such film was Francois Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black), in which a woman whose husband was killed on their wedding day seeks out and visits revenge upon the five men responsible, crossing out their names one-by-one in her notebook. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. There are certain obvious similarities to Kill Bill, although Quentin Tarantino is insistent that he has never seen the film. It’s not unreasonable that he plucked this idea from the ether, especially given his openness about the films from which he did draw ideas and images for Kill Bill, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not that was the case.

Julie (Jeanne Moreau) is prevented from leaping out of a high window by her mother. Unable to end her life, we see her begin to call upon and kill one man after another. The first, a reformed womanizer (Claude Rich) preparing for his wedding, is talked into attempting to retrieve her scarf from a precarious balcony ledge; she tells him who she is before she pushes him to his death. The next man she kills is a messy, lonely bachelor (Michel Bouquet) to whom she sends tickets for a musical performance; she poisons him even as he protests that her husband’s death was an accident. Her third victim is a would-be politician and unsympathetic adulterer; she traps him in a small closet and allows him to suffocate as he reveals the circumstances that led to her husband’s death: the group of men liked to hunt and chase skirts, so they would get together from time to time and play cards; one of them was showing off his rifle and another picked it up and shot Julie’s husband without realizing the gun was loaded. They then escaped in order to protect their futures and careers.

Julie is understandably unmoved by this confession, and moves on to Delvaux (Daniel Boulanger), but he is arrested for an unrelated crime before she can exact her revenge. She then ingratiates herself with the artist Fergus (Charles Denner), modelling for him as he slowly falls in love with her. Her initial attempts to kill him fail, but she eventually shoots him with a bow he gave her to use as a prop. By this time, a mutual friend of Fergus and her first victim, David (Serge Rousseau), has figured out the connection, and he has her arrested at Fergus’s funeral. The end of the film shows that this was part of her larger plan, as she is able to kill Delvaux on the inside of prison.

This is an almost perfect film. François Truffaut had just finished a long series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, and this was his attempt to make a Hitchcockian thriller. Truffaut himself also expressed disappointment in this film for a long time, and it was only recently that this was revealed to have been due to artistic friction with cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Coutard worked with Truffaut previously but had worked with other directors in color before he and Truffaut reunited. As a result, they had conflicting ideas and the two would often have days-long arguments over composition and lighting that ultimately led to a very difficult shoot. Offscreen friction aside, however, this film has definitely only improved with age, featuring a uniquely French approach to the art of the mise-en-scene, which lends an air of the auteur to the film overall without forsaking the Hitchcockian elements that make it function as a mainstream picture as well.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond