The Death of Louis XIV

This week’s Culture Digest rounds up some highlights from the 54th New York Film Festival


Catalonian filmmaker Albert Serra was hailed as a maverick of historical drama after his 2013 film, Story of My Death – a film that, if one were to be essentialist, might be distilled to Casanova meets Count Dracula. He continues his felicitous streak with his new feature, The Death of Louis XIV. A misdiagnosed spot on the French king’s calf turns into deadly gangrene (that is about all that Serra provides in lieu of plot). The real story is Louis XIV himself – his gestures, whims and agony – a veritable court spectacle.

Played with gusto by iconic French New Wave actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, Louis XIV is a tragic figure, a prisoner of his position. Bloated, cranky, immovable, he suffers from nightmares and pleads for water, but won’t accept it from a goblet he deems below his position. Léaud conveys formidable intelligence but also vulnerability. In the final scenes, the blackness of the King’s leg, while the other remains clad in an impeccably white sock, repels – a potent metaphor for the rot that permeates the French monarchy. Meanwhile 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.

Humour sparkles in a selection of scenes. When ladies of the court implore the King to salute them, he does it ironically, like a Shakespearean fool, whose gallantry mocks rather than flatters. The desperate court physicians summon a quack that peddles miraculous bull sperm, as medical science succumbs to fantasy. In the finale, Serra subtly shifts focus from the King to his main doctor, Fagon (Patrick d’Assumção): devoted and devastated by his failure, he delivers the quota: ‘Next time we will do better.’ It sounds mildly reassuring, suggesting that, for all the scientific advances, death continues to be our proper destiny.

Ela Bittencourt helps select films for It's All True International Documentary Film Festival and works as a critic and curator in the US and Brazil.

Most Read

Ahead of Berlin Gallery Weekend, a guide to what to see across the German capital
Ahead of Art Cologne this week, a guide to the best current shows in the city
A fresh dispute over the estate of Vivian Maier; Chris Ofili is made a CBE
Theaster Gates & The Black Monks of Mississippi’s latest project for IHME Festival, Helsinki
Barkley L. Hendricks has died; the Tate faces a lawsuit from its neighbours

From Egyptian surrealism to Parisian pissoirs: what to read this weekend
On the 2017 Jamaica Biennial and its attempts to confront the role of misogyny in Jamaican popular culture
Jan Bonny and Alex Wissel’s new film project, ‘Rheingold’, sends up the ethical superiority of art making versus...
Jason Rhoades, My Madinah. In pursuit of my ermitage..., 2004, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, The Estate of Jason Rhoades and David Zwirner; photograph: Fredrik Nilsen
Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles, USA
Ahead of Art Brussels opening this week, a guide to the best shows around town
Recently awarded a USA Artist Fellowship, Lynn Hershman Leeson speaks about cultural technologies, personal narratives...
Cosey Fanni Tutti talks to Paul Clinton about feminism, freedom and the politics of the personal
David Zwirner, New York
A guide to the best of the current and soon-to-open shows in London
The final part in a series of our editors’ initial impressions from documenta 14 Athens, Amy Sherlock on the fourth and...
A survey of more than 50 respondents from over 30 countries

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017

frieze magazine

April 2017