When I think of great slow cinema, this is the sort of film that comes to mind. The Death of Louis XIV chronicles just that, the final days leading up to the death of perhaps the most famous of all French kings, and no more. It does not sentimentally dive into the days of his youth nor does it tell a heroic story of any fictional great acts that he performed in his final hours. It chronicles the very end of the life of an old, sick man living in a grand palace surrounded by servants and the like.
Directed by Albert Serra, the film is surprisingly minimalist in terms of any sort of technical flair. It doesn’t attempt bold and dynamic shots nor does it make use of much music, and what music exists is diegetic. The overwhelming majority of the film just portrays its titular character lying in his bed being tended to by doctors and priests and his valet. The areas from which the film draws its physical beauty are more subtle. The Death of Louis XIV makes sublime use of period costumery and set design and the lighting is notably impressive, casting all of the characters in bleak candlelight while still remaining colorful and visually compelling.
A film like this truly has to lean on its protagonist, so it’s no wonder that Jean-Pierre Leaud was selected to portray The Sun King. Leaud is one of the all-time great French screen actors. He’s been a legendary performer since his debut starring in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and has worked with other great directors such as Rivette, Godard, Duvivier, and Bertolucci. In The Death of Louis XIV his performance is wrought with subtlety as he captures the spirit of a pained and dying man who seldom speaks or moves. It’s with tremendous skill that Leaud executes this role.
The film is an exercise in patience and calls upon its audience to really bathe in the suffering of all of its characters: a dying old man and the citizens watching their king die. Its pace is intentionally quite slow. Seemingly uneventful moments are often portrayed at great lengths to really capture the prolonged days of illness that Louis XIV suffered. It does drag in some moments, but the patience is generally rewarded.
The Death of Louis XIV will not be a film for all audiences. It requires some level of endurance and an expectation that the viewer is focused and receptive to subtlety. That said it offers a lot beneath the surface and reveals an incredible humanity in one of history’s most powerful and intriguing figures. It also offers a window into another time from the archaic medicinal practices to the elegant decor. At times it is less like a film and more like a beautiful moving painting. As it wallows in this quiet beauty, it reveals itself as a triumph.