Nowadays, Jean-Pierre Leaud is as much a symbol as an actor, and with good reason. Starring in The 400 Blows (1959) when he was 14, he broke out at the same moment the French New Wave did and then proceeded to come of age on camera at a time when the idea of cinema got tied to such restless, experimental, political upheaval. The honor roll includes Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966), Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), to pick the first three films to pop into my head—excluding, for the sake of fairness, the half dozen or so he made with Truffaut. In my own millennial lifetime, he’s been cast in ways that are both savvy and fetishistic: as a former New Wave director wondering what it was all for in Irma Vep (1996), and as himself in fond cameos in Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is It There? (2001) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003).
So it’s a credit to how much Leaud disappears into Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, in which he plays a noble aged monarch sliding towards oblivion, that the film is more than a cineaste’s allegory for bygone movie history. Certainly, that reading is available, and plenty satisfying if you want it. But Serra’s film has its eye on something grander, drawn paradoxically on a small scale. The plot is little more than the title: it is a two-hour string of scenes at an 18th century deathbed, the camera generally restricted to a few interiors. Its only intrigue is the way sycophants and medical quacks huddle in the corners, second-guessing themselves on how to treat the king or wondering how to get him to sign off on a matter of state, even as the king himself reverts to the mind of a child.
It is, I imagine, not what most people would call “a good movie” on the technicality that it’s not what most people would call “a movie” at all. But it’s catnip for anyone who needs to be reminded that that restless filmmaking spirit never really went away. It is defiantly slow and hushed, the sort of film that insists on being taken on its terms and no one else’s. But as its details accumulate, it reaches a cinematic sweet spot where a film can tackle such heady subjects—the absurdity of history, the inevitability of death, and the way human civilization, each phase of which looks surreal in retrospect, is helpless in the face of it—without anyone ever giving a speech to that effect or reducing its ideas to mere words. (In aiming to make a period-piece era feel not relatable but insane, it finds a candlelit brethren in Barry Lyndon (1975), which many Kubrick fans are bored by for reasons I can’t fully understand, and which is an action movie by comparison).
Ultimately, the experience of The Death of Louis XIV is modestly anticlimactic for a film of such willful ambition, which is a polite way of saying that I suspect Serra’s best work is either still to come or carries inherent limitations. But with Leaud providing the raw pain, confusion, and wistfulness of old age, and Serra providing a perspective that can swing from empathy to satire to the grisly and the grotesque, it is a gem: a slice of provocative melancholia willing to set (and break) its own rules.
The Death of Louis XIV played Cannes in 2016 and was released into a precious handful of theaters by the good people at Cinema Guild in 2017. It is now hiding, available for rental, on iTunes.