Fish, they say, stink from the head down. In the case of Louis XIV (Jean-Pierre Léaud), it was the opposite. A pain in his leg turned into gangrene which, misdiagnosed and untreated by his physicians, spread upward from his foot to kill him within a matter of days in 1715.
The docu-drama “The Death of Louis XIV,” directed by Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra (“Honor de Cavalleria”), gazes unblinkingly at this process of decay and shares every agonizing, absurd, and ironic moment. Without ever leaving the king’s bedroom, where he feebly attends to affairs of the state almost to his final hours, it depicts the decline and fall of the most powerful autocrat of his time as if it were a minimalist Samuel Beckett play.
Is this just a formal exercise? If so, it succeeds with oppressive effectiveness. As a document of world and cinema history it could serve as a fitting bookend to Roberto Rossellini’s spare but comparatively sumptuous French TV movie “The Rise of Louis XIV” (1966). But at its most powerful it presents an allegory of the decline and fall and vanity of power, and an intimate look at the inevitable confrontation with mortality faced by kings and commoners alike.
As Louis, Léaud conveys the king’s ordeal with his anguished presence and the iconic, everyman image he has built in a career that began almost 60 years ago with his second film “The 400 Blows” (1959). Coifed in a giant gray wig that makes him look like a monstrous Rod Stewart, Léaud evokes the resignation and determination of a potentate who reigned for 72 years as the “Sun King” of France.
Ailing though he may be, the king continues to fulfill the duties of his office from his sick bed. Ministers badger him to authorize funding for fortifications (“Is it really necessary?” he asks wearily). Women of the court ask for his farewell as they leave a fête in an adjoining drawing room; Louis’s lackey brings him his giant plumed hat, the king raises it, they applaud and the lackey takes the hat away. Almost undiscernibly, the light wanes, the damask pink of his room and attire dims to gray, and Louis confronts the end without fear or hope.
“Do not imitate me in my love of buildings and war,” he advises his great grandson and successor, the 5-year-old future Louis XV. Instead, he instructs, work for peace and “console the people.”
“We will do better next time,” says the royal physician after they examine the king’s bowels in a somber, grisly post-mortem. To which Louis might have replied, “Après moi, le deluge” (after me, the deluge).
THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV
Directed by Albert Serra. Written by Serra and Thierry Lounas. Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. At the Brattle. 115 minutes. Unrated (graphic images of gangrene and a suffocating confirmation of the vanity of human aspirations). In French, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.