Stopping for Death

Albert Serra and Jean-Pierre Léaud on The Death Of Louis XIV.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jean-Pierre Léaud to Anne-Katrin Titze:
Jean-Pierre Léaud to Anne-Katrin Titze: "In terms of what you felt, I can understand that and I felt something similar." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Albert Serra's confined and vast The Death of Louis XIV (La Mort De Louis XIV), co-written with Thierry Lounas (producer of Abel Ferrara's Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe as Pier Paolo Pasolini) stars Jean-Pierre Léaud as the Sun King himself during the final weeks of his life. Patrick d’Assumçao, Marc Susini and Irène Silvagni as Madame de Maintenon (played by Isabelle Huppert in Patricia Mazuy's Saint-Cyr - The King's Daughters) head a brooding supporting cast.

Courtiers come and go for business. The doctor places a glass eye on the king's forehead for diagnosis. Medicine in the 18th century is "not an exact science". Based on the writings of Saint-Simon, medical records, and other notes from court, Albert Serra's film focuses on potent details that lay open one of history's most powerful rulers in his humanity.

Albert Serra:
Albert Serra: "That was also my point on the subject of death - sometimes it’s very grave."

During the month of August 1715, Louis XIV is dying. The great, luminous Jean-Pierre Léaud as the monarch shows us the death of the two bodies of the king. The journey, set exclusively in one room, is a cinematic experience unlike any other. At first, the king feels pain in his left leg. Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao), his doctor, believes it isn't gangrene. His beautiful hounds come to visit; he hasn't seen them in 20 days. One of them nibbles on his nose. "My dogs," he says with the clearest, purest joy, "my dogs that I love so much."

Does the little bird in a cage by his bedside hinder the convalescence? Can an impostor from Marseille who promises magical healing help? Or perhaps the group of doctors from the University of Paris? A priest is called for the last rites, a few times. He can't swallow anything anymore. His leg has turned black. Buildings and war, he tells the Dauphin, might not be so deserving as a most prominent achievement after all. Madame de Maintenon (Irène Silvagni) is to be called from Saint-Cyr. His pain is all-encompassing. After not being able to swallow, he has biscota dunked in wine from Alicante and then - looks straight into the camera.

At the New York Film Festival press conference moderated by Kent Jones with Albert Serra and Jean-Pierre Léaud, we kindly stopped for Death.

Jean-Pierre Léaud as King Louis XIV:
Jean-Pierre Léaud as King Louis XIV: "I also had this feeling that, you know, you were staring straight at Death."

Anne-Katrin Titze: There was a moment in the film where I felt that I, in the audience, was cast as Death - coming to the king. That was when you [to Jean-Pierre Léaud] were looking right at us. And I was very happy that the film did not stop there. And that he didn’t die at that moment, but died a bit later. Is that something that you were thinking of at that moment?

Albert Serra: This moment we shot it two or three times. One of the reasons was music. Jean-Pierre wanted to listen to music. He wanted Monteverdi but we didn’t have Monteverdi because the composer was not chronological. He was born after the rule of the king. Then we shoot it as always and then in the edit … Usually when somebody looks at the camera, you know, it puts you out of the film. Because you realize that this is a film.

But here I don’t know why it worked. Because, like you said it is a little bit, it looks like you’re facing death but you don’t know if it’s your death or, you know, the death of the king. It’s like a dialogue. Paradoxically in this scene, when they look at you, you get in more in the film. Not going out which is usual in this kind of thing. So for me it was also a mystery.

La Mort De Louis XIV poster
La Mort De Louis XIV poster

Jean-Pierre Léaud: In terms of what you felt, I can understand that and I felt something similar. Because when I came out after the shooting of the film, I also had this feeling that, you know, you were staring straight at Death. And that you didn’t know if you were experiencing it or seeing it. And that you had to not be afraid of it and let it come towards you. That’s what you felt, that’s what I felt when I was acting.

AS: That was also my point on the subject of death - sometimes it’s very grave. It’s a very important moment. Usually it’s done in a very dramatic way: Death as the last affirmation of life, or the last gesture of life or the last resume of life, or whatever. Here, I like the idea also that was closer to what I have experienced in my own life - the banality of death in itself. It’s very beautiful what you [to Kent Jones] wrote in the catalogue.

The banality around all those representations around the king but also the banality of the death itself. I like the idea at the end of the film … it’s very close to what I experienced with my grandparents and some relatives. They are there and suddenly they are not there and that’s all. And everything is the same. Everybody else is in the same life, doing the same thing.

This for me is not really a drastic approach of death or the banal part of death. I wanted to balance a little bit of that in the film.

The Death of Louis XIV final New York Film Festival screening: Friday, October 7 at 6:00pm - Howard Gilman Theater - Expected to attend: Albert Serra and Jean-Pierre Léaud

The Death of Louis XIV will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on October 10 at 8:45pm and October 12 at 8:45pm.

The 54th New York Film Festival runs until October 16.

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