The Death of Louis XlV Albert Serra (Fr 2016) Jean–Pierre Leaud
viewed via obscure streaming ap 20 Oct 2020; free
two for one
Serra’s movie comes across as a reflection upon death, both in the actual and in the cinematic/political sense. Unlike the monarch he depicts J-P Leaud is of course not dying but the cinema he personified in his earlier career, the French New Wave of Godard,Varda, Truffaut Rivette et al, is all but played out. Like Louis XlV ‘La Nouvelle Vague’ was product of its age. And as Godard himself has said: “Cinema est mort.”
What characterises New Wave is that it epitomised the idea of Cinema as a way of thinking. The New Wave and the Cinemas of other cultures moving along similar lines in Germany Italy, Iran India and Africa, made films as a means of exploring exploiting extending moving images text music voice sound, to penetrate and open up situations to certain modes of analysis to certain kinds of ideational juxtapositions. The scripts (such as they were) and/or the mis en scenes were not in general built about the narrative form, but rather grounded in ideas propositions and politico/philosophical statements. The purpose of narrative for these film makers was to allow certain kinds of manipulation of the material, for it to function as a testing track for thoughts and ideas. Narrative per se was rarely the keystone of this cinema. And the acting was also distinctive, the characters in the films, tended to represent certain types rather than individualistic personas. The successful actors in these films were those who could simply transpose their own beings into the demands of the film scenario. There was not a requirement for ‘method’ acting or building up a character, back story etc; what was required was professional non-actors. And in playing Louis XlV, Leaud does not play a role or a character: he is not a king he is simply a type, a man who is dying.
Like The Divine Right of Kings, the legitimising philosophy developed by Louis XlV, the idea of a cinema, that is in part a way of thinking or being in the world has receded as a idea. Production of actual films has been overwhelmed by the default to the Hollywood norm of narrative and the cinema of the Superspectacle. An ideology of form taking precedence over an ideology of content. ‘Apres moi le deluge’ is a saying attributed to Louis XlV, and could also sum up Godard’s final judgement on the future of cinema. Louis in the person Leaud sees the lights go out, not with a bang but with a whimper, killed by the manipulations of his doctors anxious to pin the blame for his death on a convenient scapegoat, an outsider, a migrant.
Sarra’s movie does not take on a narrative form; rather it is an observation of a process whose outcome is never in doubt: the death of the monarch. The filming is emblazoned in a rich chiaroscuro of dark colour, predominantly reds. Doctors come and go with their probings and examinations of the body of the king, intent not so much to cure, rather to go through the necessary motions that will protect their reputations. As Louis dies, issues of urgent state importance are brought to his attention and those ministering to his soul come and go. But none of these interpellations, can compete with Serra’s central positioning of a man taking leave of life and moving with a certain calmness into the realm of death.
Serra’s movie works on its own terms as a study of dieing. A monarch dies like any other human, in the fold of dramas that in the last analysis are rendered irrelevant by death. But Leaud’s presence in his playing of Louis XlV adds an analogous track to the scenario. It’s a phantom track, a shadow that his recumbent body casts over the film, the demise of Cinema. Just as after Louis’ death the advance of social cultural and technical forces eventually closed over the monarchy and destroyed it.
The French Revolution of 1789 can be understood as an acceleration of the world away from the static heliocentric vision of the Sun King and the Divine Right of Kings, as the worlds of science and philosophy overtook the domain of Louis XlV and left the certainties of his age behind in their wake. And some similar process affected the New Wave as the early1990s witnessed huge wave of technical and accompanying social accelerations. These accelerations closed over Cinema, whose dominance had already been challenged by TV, but which now was submerged under oncoming waves of vibrant new technologies controlling information and communication: video games, IT forms extending into social media, image streaming.
This acceleration of particle information across different modes of discourse and its transmission created worlds of relevance and immanence that increasingly take the form of closed loops. Worlds where thinking is heretically sealed and characterised by reactivity not pro-activity, and in which situational dialogue the creative spark of life, dies the death.
Dialogue was always at the centre of the New Wave filmic expression. And of course dialogue as a creative intensifier is the opposite of everything that Louis XlV as an absolute monarch, believed in. In a strange and ironic fashion you might say that today’s worlds of media driven closed loop reality are also absolutist, the consumer is King. In the 21st century we have returned to a situation in which Louis XlV, as an individual, would have felt very comfortable. To be able to speak without fear of contradiction. As a culture we have come the full circle, and probably done so many times.