Festival Focus: London Film Festival 2016 – The Death of Louis XIV, Porto

Posted October 24th, 2016 by Matt Turner

The latest in Albert Serra’s series of imaginative retellings of the legends of historical or literary figures might be his best yet, and is certainly his most accessible. The Death of Louis XIV was conceived initially as a performance piece, commissioned by the Centre Pompidou and due to take place over 15 days there, and elements of this form remain. Starring a 71-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud as the near-terminal Sun King, Serra’s film takes place entirely within the royal chamber, ensuring the “unity of location, space and time” that the director insists – alongside multiple-camera setups, a refusal to rehearse scenes and an insistence on recording massive amounts of material whilst in production – is essential to producing fruitful artistic results.

The evidence of this film suggests there is certainly something to these rigorous methodologies and semi-pompous manner of explaining them. Serra argues that in every actor there are three components that play into the creation of a screen persona – the real person, the individual that comes out when a camera is pointed towards them, and the character they are inhabiting. One of the joys of The Death of Louis XIV is seeing these three versions of Léaud emerge through his minimalist, nuanced performance, and in a grander sense, to see how Serra, through his spirited reanimations of past lives, makes history human.

Confined largely to his bed and weak in health, Léaud’s pampered, pompadoured Louis is choosing with his words, conveying the bulk of the film’s emotive weight in looks, heavy sighs and loaded gestures. Around him are countless valets and attendants, a parade of giggling women, and a team of doctors trying, calamitously and often mordantly comically, to improve his condition. Serra’s film – minimalist in structure but maximalist in the grandeur of the lighting, costuming and decor – is found in the interactions between these groups of servants and the king. As these attendants fawn over their faltering monarch, a connection is always palpable if often a ridiculous one. (One of the more absurd moments sees a group of courtsmen applaud after the king successfully eats a biscuit.) This contrast, between the strength of the King’s power and his body’s weakness, adds humility to his decline.

With Louis XIV, Serra humanises his King, in a way he never managed with the leads of his previous portraits. In those past films, he’s used amateur actors who have always compelled and confounded in their roles, but rarely manage to move quite as Léaud manages to. One bravura moment – a long take in which Léaud, soundtracked by Mozart, looks directly at camera – is so emphatic and gestural, it almost stands apart within the director’s feature oeuvre. Warm, rich and opulent, The Death of Louis XIV shows Serra in top command, achieving tonal balance and visual splendour within the most claustrophobic confines. Serra achieves pathos for his fallen king whilst simultaneously mocking the absurdity and injustice of inherited power. Ending affairs with a truly fantastic closing line, what is conveyed in The Death of Louis XIV is the universality of mortality and the banality of death. Prince or pauper, we die all the same.

For some, cinema acts as a replacement for travel, transporting the viewer to faraway locales, situations and mentalities that limitations like mobility, health or income might prevent them from otherwise reaching. Gabe Klinger’s Porto does this for that beautiful Portuguese city – a film about fantasies and delusions, about temporary transportations of the body and mind, and about the wonder of totally inhabiting a minute and a moment. It’s a beautiful film – made of gorgeous, varied, format-crossing cinematography by DoP Wyatt Garfield that captures the painterly quality of the city through a wash of soft blue-grey day hues and shimmering nighttime yellows – but one thats pleasures are transitory.

Mixing Super8, 16 and 35mm stocks, Klinger will be accused of format-fetishism, of a superficial attraction to the material of film, but that accusation is unfair. It is clear the choice to switch formats alongside timelines is a well considered one, one that aids the narrative experience as well as texturing it visually. With format changes, Klinger spans timelines and perspectives, showing an overnight affair between two outsiders brought to the city by chance, Jake (Anton Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas), over three acts from the side of both parties – first separately, then together. Divided three ways already with the act structure, the varying changes of viewpoint and chronology are further subdivided with camera-tech switches, producing an ever dissolving, frequently illusory canvas of time and memory that Klinger uses to confuse and complicate, replicating the sensation of obsessively delving through memories to try and ascertain some ungraspable truth.

In showing almost immediately that this affair is doomed, Klinger, a former critic and programmer well versed in the tricks and turns of the cinematic trade, creates a kind of get-out clause for the male-fantasy-wish-fulfillment scenarios that will follow – all this is not reality, it’s the fallibility of memory, it’s the warped interpretation of an obsessive mind, it’s the heightened passion of the here-and-now hyper-accentuated by the turmoil of the aftermath. Porto is a real mixture. In the best moments, it’s intoxicating, a wonderful melding of a lifetime of film watching that feels inspired without being derivative. In the more clumsy or overstated moments, it’s a little awkward. “I’ve never came that quick… like a guy…” gasps Mati at the height of their tryst. The dialogue, often hyperbolic by design to replicate the extremities of love and lust, can be difficult to stomach; and the characterisation of the duo – how Mati the impassioned, self-describing “crazy” person allows herself to fall for Jake, neurotic but charming anyway – is a little troubling.

There’s lot to admire in Klinger’s first narrative feature, not least its (rare) sincerity. (He directed a terrific documentary before this, Double Play, about the relationship between Richard Linklater and James Benning, essential viewing if only for the scene with the two filmmakers discussing the merits of their relative cinematic styles over a game of backyard catch.) As a misremembered mix of passion, obsession and melancholy, a mood piece and city symphony, its charm is clear. As a narrative piece, with its (under)written characters engaging in a somewhat unbelievable affair, it’s a little less comfortable.

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