The French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is best known for his first major role in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, in which the closing freeze-frame of his then 14-year-old face is a lingering image of his star persona. When I think of Léaud, I think of him as Alexandre in Jean Eustache’s 1973 film The Mother and the Whore; louche, handsome, just shy of his 30s. In Catalan art-house director Albert Serra’s dramatisation of the pampered monarch’s slow, squeezed death, the face of the French New Wave is a far cry from Alexandre. Here, his rotting body is draped in lace and silk, velvet and ruffles; his pale, papery skin loaded with powdery blush; a wig with the consistency of candyfloss his only visible crown.
Based on Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon and the Journal of Marquis de Dangeau, both of which recalled the last days in Louis XIV’s life, Serra’s film stays mostly in the king’s bedchamber inside the Palace of Versailles as gangrene creeps up his left leg. At first, it’s morbidly funny – his aides offer him a chocolate box filled with fake eyeballs, cheer as he manages to successfully eat a biscuit, and rush to his side when he calls for water in the middle of the night, choking and wheezing that he won’t drink out of anything other than a crystal goblet.
Yet these flashes of comedy soon give way to an atmosphere of quiet, inevitable tragedy. Serra is interested in the details of ritual, homing in on the visceral, audible squelch of chewed candy and lingering on the rosewater used to wash Louis’s decomposing leg, helped along by Jonathan Ricquebourg’s warm, candle-lit cinematography. Still, the best sequence sees Léaud – who spends a great deal of the film all but inert – breaking the fourth wall and fixing his gaze on the camera. Louis may be dying, but Léaud is alive.
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