At fourteen, Jean-Pierre Léaud let his face be ravished in the most haunting last shot in cinema history. In François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the mischievous Antoine Doinel, played by Léaud, runs and runs from his parents and adolescent bullshit. Stopping at a beach to catch his breath, he turns to the camera, a freeze frame of exhaustion and skepticism. Few child actors can reprise the freshness of their work before self-consciousness freezes them. Léaud emerged a good actor and a touchstone of the French New Wave, appearing in Godard, Eustache, Bertolucci, and more Truffaut films; he was particularly effective in Stolen Kisses, where Doinel emerges as a young adult with a vast capacity for self-amusement.
As he aged, however, the camera noted the round blandness of his face, like a bare rump. Playing the Sun King in The Death of Louis XIV, the seventy-six-year-old Léaud surrenders any relation to the rest of his body. In one of film’s longest goodbyes, he’s shot from the head up as the grandest and greatest of French autocrats succumbs to the infection from a gangrenous leg. Covered in powder and garnished with an enormous wig that Falco would have envied, Louis looks absurd, but the way Catalan director Albert Serra (Story of My Death) frames that wrinkled prairie you can’t laugh at him. Ruling France for almost seven decades comes as naturally as eating or farting; losing his corporeal form requries no commensurate loss of mental vigor or lapse into spiritual torpor. Like Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress but less impishly, Louis is so comfortable with the trappings of power that he becomes power.
That’s the grand joke in Serra’s film. As his ministers gather around for the death watch, motivated by grief and relief, Louis’s head fills the screen in elephantine proportions. He epitomizes Western autocracy and is its end point, dying eighty years before his great-great grandson was guillotined before a braying mob. Autocracy can be hell on one’s dignity, though, and as his scheming doctors, who can’t decide whether to keep Louis alive or let the bastard rot, force food on him Louis becomes a sad clown choking on red wine. Courtiers cheer when he can swallow a bisconi. Life is measured in milliseconds of time. Ignore him at your peril, though. At the point when his soul looks like it’s going to shuffle off its painted, periwigged coil, Louis agrees to put to death the doctor who misdiagnosed him. C’est la guerre.
As these description suggest, The Death of Louis XIV is a sedentary affair, but for a while a fascinating one. Serra and cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg capture the plush leisured rottenness of wealth beyond measure; you can smell the sweat and mung on the scarlet cushions, see the dust hanging in the fetid air. Should this be his swan song, playing Louis is an appropriate farewell for Léaud. The role doesn’t require him to “act” – it requires him to behave, which makes sense: Léaud’s serenity, often settling into passivity when a director didn’t hit him with a riding crop, has always suggested a connection to the values of silent cinema. In the last third, when Louis seems to rally, he breaks the putative third wall, breaks through space and time, to gaze defiantly at the audience, as if daring them to will his death. With Serra swathing him in another exquisite medium shot, Léaud suggests Falconetti herself. What a farewell.