Rossellini’s Louis XIV: “Neither the Sun nor Death can be Gazed Upon Fixedly”

Roberto Rossellini, late in his career, made four astonishing color movies for French and Italian public television. They’re costume dramas not unlike those on our own PBS with one important difference: they were made by a genius. Criterion has recently released them in its bargain-priced Eclipse Series.

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV stands apart from the others in the series. While telling its story of 17th century France with the brio of a Dumas novel, it’s a beautiful movie to watch. Rossellini pays equal attention to aristocrat and servant and observes their daily lives with the impartial eye of a painter like Chardin. As in his famous neo-realist films (Open City, Paisan), Rossellini uses both professional and non-professional actors and a mark of his genius is that you can’t tell which is which. Jean-Marie Patte, for instance, in the title role looks nothing like a king. He’s features are lumpish and ugly; he’s short and when he moves, it’s in a clumsy, brutish fashion. Neither is he witty. His favorite mode of speech is the bark. He leaves clever observations to others, indifferent to the jokes they make at his expense. So what if the world believes that, like most men of 22, he cares only for sex and sport and is indifferent to affairs of state. His trappings and surroundings tell him he is King.

And yet he sends almost hourly for reports on his dying chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin (Silvagni), the richest, greediest and most powerful man in France. (Cunningly, he orders a maidservant, not a courtier, to keep him informed of the Cardinal’s health.) Once the Cardinal dies – his deathbed scene is hilarious – King Louis is at last a sovereign.

One of his first acts is to order the arrest of Mazarin’s protégé, Fouquet (Pierre Barrat), by none other than D’Artagnan (Maurice Barrier) and his musketeers. Another such act is to cause every courtier in France to live at Versailles, thereby putting them into a painfully competitive situation, particularly in regard to dress. In one scene, Rossellini shows Louis dictating to the court tailor exactly how long a sleeve must be, calling for more lace here, more ribbons there, an inch or two taller heels. With each tightening of the sartorial screw, Louis becomes more powerful. He compensates his courtiers for the expense of their elaborate dress, thereby making sure they know that all good comes from the monarch just as all life comes from the sun, a point he makes explicitly.

At the acme of his power, Louis is shown at court festivities expensively bewigged and wearing a costume so elaborate it must be seen to be believed. At his first court banquet, Louis eats before any of the others are served. As if to show how absolute his power is, the meal consists of many courses – very many courses – and Louis takes his time. This complicated sequence is shot in an upstairs-downstairs fashion (the dual cinematographers are the virtuosic Georges Leclerc and the accomplished Jean-Louis Picavet). Next, King and court are seen assembled in the garden at Versailles from which they proceed up the stairs to the palace, a spectacle as remarkable for the tick-tack of their heels as for their sumptuous costumes.

The last scene belongs to Louis alone. Its poignance and humanity hint at how complex a character he was. It will also go far to explain why, at its first showing in New York, many (myself included), exclaimed “I love this movie!”

Note: Those wishing know more about Louis XIV and his place in history could do no better than to read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne. Also recommended: Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King.

New, restored digital transfer
Released on January 13, 2009
1 Disc SRP: $29.95; Criterion Store price $23.96 
Italy; 1965; in French with English subtitles; 100 minutes; Color; 1.33:1

Taking Power, a multimedia essay by Tag Gallagher, author of The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini

Video interview with artistic advisor Jean Dominique de la Rochefoucauld and script supervisor Michelle Podroznik
Video interview with Renzo Rossellini,

PLUS: A new essay by critic Colin MacCabe

BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of the original Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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BEN SONNENBERG is the author of Lost Property: Memoirs & Confessions of a Bad Boy, and the founder/editor of Grand Street. He can be reached at harapos@panix.com.

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