Jean-Pierre Léaud in 'The Death of Louis XIV' courtesy of the Toronto Film Festival
Jean-Pierre Léaud in 'The Death of Louis XIV' courtesy of the Toronto Film Festival

Anyone reading the reports on this year's Cannes Film Festival in the July/August 2016 issue of Film Comment by New York Film Festival director Kent Jones and Film Society of Lincoln Center director of programming Dennis Lim could have placed a pretty safe bet that Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV with Jean-Pierre Léaud playing the titular king would make a showing at the NYFF a few months later. That happens this evening and tomorrow, with both Serra and Léaud on hand for Q&As.

"Serra’s film is simplicity itself," writes Jones, "and its richness of texture and multilayered historical and philosophical musing is all centered on Léaud’s game rendering of a seemingly impossible directorial idea: a movie whose action is entirely built around a monarch lying in bed, slowly losing his senses and his energy as he dies of gangrene. This is Serra’s best film, partly because of its elegant simplicity, and partly because his vast knowledge of history and his meticulous rendering of early 18th-century sybaritic existence is given vivacity and offhand life by a great actor."

"There is a certain poignancy in Léaud, now 72, synonymous with French cinema for over half a century, playing the longest-reigning French king in his final days," finds Lim. "Gazing out from the most voluminous of wigs, barely speaking or moving for much of the film…, Léaud delivers a remarkable performance that concerns matters both grimly physical and dauntingly abstract. We see a body in decay but also sense the depletion of power, the evacuation of life."

"In burnished ambers and Van Dyke browns evocative of both the canvases of Rembrandt and the candlelit interiors of Barry Lyndon, we observe the sad pageantry of Louis as he struggles to pull himself up, to swallow food, and to conduct even the most banal business of his court," writes Michael Sicinski in the Notebook. "Although others have depicted Versailles as a sort of melancholy sideshow (most notably Sofia Coppola, in her unfairly maligned Marie Antoinette), Serra is not so much interested in the king as a locus of power. In that regard, those around him are much more conniving and worth keeping an eye on. No, much like his studies of other personages from the history of Western civilization—Casanova, Dracula, Don Quixote—Serra is fascinated by the word made flesh and the point at which history and legend atrophy into muscle, blood, and bone."

For Ela Bittencourt, writing for frieze, "the painterly mise-en-scene and cinematography—golden and ochre hews, Venetian reds, soft camera focus and the glowing whiteness of doctors’ caftans, illumined by multiple light sources a la Vermeer—turn death into a feast. The exquisite still lives of fruit and draperies contrast with the morbid still life of decaying flesh."

Dispatching to the AV Club from Toronto, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is less taken: "Serra, a fortysomething Catalan filmmaker who looks like he used to be in The Hives, takes canonical sources… and rigorously drains them of eventfulness, peddling the result as essence de longueur…. Like all of Serra’s torpid, conceptual films, The Death of Louis XIV forces its audience into an act of devotion: 'If you love Léaud, underlit finery, and the sort of cinema this represents as much as I do, you’ll stay awake.'"

"He looks and talks like a phony," grants Tanner Tafelski at Hyperallergic, but: "Trust the film, not the filmmaker…. Moreover, where Quixotic (2006), Birdsong [2008] and Story of My Death [2013] are puckish, The Death of Louis XIV is sober… Critics will critique, haters will hate, and filmmakers will film—and this particular enfant terrible has made a breakthrough as a director. The King is dead, long live the King."

More from James Adams (Globe and Mail: "A masterpiece"), Paul Attard (In Review Online), Ben Nicholson (CineVue, 2/5) and Ethan Vestby (Film Stage, B+). And in the Notebook, you'll find a transcription of the interview Daniel Kasman conducted with Serra at Cannes.

Update, 10/7: "Most of Serra’s film is shot in close-ups," writes Eric Barroso in Brooklyn Magazine, "the kind that distort faces into grotesque landscapes, and it becomes clear that this is his mode of subversion—quiet, but not gentle."

Update, 10/8: "In its prolonged and repetitive sequences of eating, drinking, staring into space, perspiring, praying (the preceding list truly captures all the significant incident in the film), the film betrays its roots," suggests Ankit Jhunjhunwala of the International Cinephile Society. "Originally conceived as an art installation, it was supposed to be a 15-day display with actors behind a glass screen enacting continuously pretty much what you see on screen. The repetition makes for an unnerving viewing experience."

Update, 10/11: For Shahab Yunus at the International Cinephile Society, the "emotionally austere or stoic approach sounds harsh and bitter, and could have ended up being very clinical or bleak, but the director here uses an elegant style and macabre poeticism… A slow, predictable, discrete decline, which is essentially a series of steps that apply to anyone. King or plebeian, knight or knave."

Update, 10/12: "Léaud, 72, has been keeping his restless, adventurous New Wave spirit alive by working with many daring contemporary filmmakers (Tsai Ming-liang, Bertrand Bonello, Olivier Assayas just to name a few) over the years," writes Dustin Chang at Screen Anarchy. "Here, he accepts the physically confounding role and fully collaborating with Serra, whose filmmaking charts new territories in cinema."

Updates, 10/13: "Serra has indicated in interviews that he wasn’t interested in Léaud’s past as an actor," notes Leo Goldsmith at Reverse Shot. "This has got to be bullshit: the film’s brief moments of drama and all of its morbid fascination rely on our willingness to observe, in detail, the slow decay of a treasured body. The project actually began as a commission from the Centre Pompidou that was to feature Léaud performing the king’s death for two weeks while lying in bed inside a glass coffin, which says a lot about what interested Serra in the first place. The obsessive care for the body of the king—by servants and doctors and dietitians and priests and quacks—is all part of a process that renders Louis a hallowed corpse practically before the film begins. When we first see Léaud, the hagiography is already complete."

At Sloan Science & Film, Sonia Epstein notes that Léaud remarked during the festival: "I became trapped within an experience that simultaneously was the experience of my own death. It was my own death that was being filmed while I was interpreting Louis XIV’s death."

Update, 10/15: "Unlike [Roberto Rossellini’s Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966)], which is filmed in radiant high-key and shows sumptuous detail of fabrics and flooring," writes David Bordwell, "Serra’s treatment relies on chiaroscuro, with shadow areas broken by trembling candlelight. And while Rossellini’s PanCinor lens swivels and zooms around these apartments, Serra cuts among close views of faces, hands, and a steadily blackening gangrenous royal foot…. It’s glib to say that cinema films death at work, but here the cliché gains some meaning."

Update, 11/9: Alfonso Rivera interviews Serra for Cineuropa: "Compared to the rest of my films, there’s a lot less of me in the main character this time—he’s much more removed from my world…. I would have liked to have made it a little crazier, but it was difficult because of the spatial limitations of the set. Any indulgence I might have added would have damaged the believability of the film as a whole."

NYFF 2016 Index.