The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV) [DVD]
Director : Roberto Rossellini
Screenplay : Philippe Erlanger and Jean Gruault
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1966
Stars : Jean-Marie Patte (King Louis XIV), Raymond Jourdan (Jean Baptiste Colbert), Silvagni (Cardinal Mazarin), Katharina Renn (Anne d'Autriche), Dominique Vincent (Madame Du Plessis), Pierre Barrat (Nicolas Fouquet), Fernand Fabre (Michel Le Tellier), Françoise Ponty (Louise de la Vallière), Joëlle Laugeois (Marie-Thérèse), Maurice Barrier (D'Artagnan), André Dumas (Le Père Joly)
In 1962, director Roberto Rossellini, who had left an indelible mark on the movies by pioneering Italian neorealism with his end-of-the-war docudrama Rome, Open City (1945), abandoned the cinema. This is not to say, however, that he stopped making movies. Rather, he shifted his focus to the medium of television, where he spent the last 15 years of his career producing a series of documentaries and historical dramas about famous figures ranging from Socrates, to Blaise Pascal, to Jesus Christ. Unlike most film directors, particularly those who have achieved legendary status, Rossellini did not look down on television, but rather saw it as a great educational medium that could be used to combat ignorance. Working on television meant that he was confined to a more limited medium that was both smaller in scope and required tighter budgets, but the small screen was actually a natural fit for Rossellini’s simple, direct aesthetic. Drawing from the neorealist style, he continued to use nonprofessional actors, actual locations, and subtle but often marvelous observational camerawork that brought to life the world before the lens.
The first of Rossellini’s television films was The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV), which was made for French television but was also given a successful theatrical release. While it should have been one of Rossellini’s least personal works given that he was brought on board late in preproduction and had no hand in writing the script, it still clearly a product of the great neorealist director’s hand, particularly in the way it emphasizes the small details of life that are often ignored in movies that are built around narrative or visual spectacle, which is often the case with costume dramas. Rossellini’s fascination with the rituals of life among the power elite of 17th-century France transcends the film’s relatively sluggish pace and often oblique approach to storytelling.
Ironically, the titular King Louis XIV, who would come to be known as the “Sun King,” does not appear in the film until nearly 20 minutes have passed. Instead, the film’s opening passages focus on the last days of the dying and bed-ridden prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin (Silvagni), who has, for all intents and purposes, run France for the previous two decades. (The attention that Rossellini’s pays to the antiquated medical procedures of the day, including the smelling of Mazarin’s sweat and the close inspection of his chamber pot, are some of the first clues as to what the film is really about.) Louis, on the other hand, has been a king in name only since he ascended the throne at age four. An insecure and often frightened little man, he has spent his years indulging in pleasure and distractions as a way of hiding from the dangers that real power entails.
Nevertheless, when Mazarin dies and Louis must assert himself, he does so with unexpected vigor, although that vigor is largely internalized. As played by Jean-Marie Patte, who had never before acted in front of the camera and would do so again only once, Louis is a passive-aggressive monarch who uses his fundamental understanding of human nature (especially greed) to make himself the center of France. This is particularly ironic given that Louis is so physically and interpersonally diminutive, with his baby face, short stature, and unwillingness to look anyone in the eye. Yet, he uses his nonthreatening presence to his advantage, quietly consolidating power and eliminating those who would challenge him. This is done both directly, as when he has a particularly power-hungry noble named Nicolas Fouquet arrested, and indirectly, as when he orders the construction of the great Palace of Versailles so that all the country’s nobles (all 15,000 of them) could be housed together and distracted (if not overwhelmed) with state-funded pomp and circumstance, thus making them easier to control. The most cunning and also unavoidably amusing tactic he employs is decreeing a ridiculous new fashion style whose emulation will literally bleed the nobles dry financially.
Rossellini and cinematographers Georges Leclerc and Jean-Louis Picavet self-consciously evoke 17th-century oil paintings in their framing and lighting of various spaces, which the camera explores with slow zooms and careful movements. There is something slightly stilted about the film, partially because Rossellini goes to such lengths to arrange the characters in the frame that they seem less like human beings than aesthetic pawns. At the same time, though, this underscores the film’s theme about the nature of power and how it requires the manipulation of all those who might seek it for themselves. One of the film’s most powerful and iconic moments finds all of France’s nobility neatly spread out in the gardens of Versailles, reduced from a collective threat to mere ornamentation.
One of the film’s chief criticisms has been that Jean-Marie Patte’s performance as Louis is awkward (he had to read most of his lines off cue cards), which is true, but that awkwardness is transformed in almost alchemic fashion to convey the king’s stiffness and constant discomfort in the increasingly claustrophobic world he is creating (Patte is also a spitting image of Louis as captured in various paintings). When Rossellini ends the film with Louis alone, reciting over and over to himself a maxim by the writer François de La Rochefoucauld (“Neither the sun nor death can be gazed at fixedly”), it is both a testament to the young king’s resolve and a bittersweet portrait of a man convincing himself of his own authority.
|The Taking of Power by Louis XIV Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||January 13, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Since The Taking of Power by Louis XIV was originally intended for television, it doesn’t lose too much on the small screen, although watching it on a larger screen or projector quickly makes you realize that Rossellini was pushing the boundaries of the televisual medium (especially given its technological limitations in the 1960s). Rossellini shot the film on 16mm color stock, and Criterion’s digitally restored transfer was taken from a 35mm composite print. Although it is listed as being 1.33:1, there are actually small black bars on either side that make the aspect ratio slightly more vertical (about 1.28:1). The image is certainly good, especially in terms of the strong colors, although it isn’t a real stand-out. The image is a bit soft and some of the darker parts of the screen seem a tad murky, which is likely the result of the transfer being made from a 35mm print blown-up from the 16mm negative (which also increased the presence of grain). Detail is still quite good, though, and the monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, is plenty clean.|
|While there is no audio commentary, there is a very insightful 24-minute multimedia essay by Tag Gallagher, author of The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini, that explores the film visually and thematically and also places it in context with Rossellini’s other films. There are also two video interviews, one with Rossellini’s son Renzo (5 min.), and one with artistic advisor Jean Dominique de la Rochefoucauld and script supervisor Michelle Podroznik (14 min.) that was recorded in 2004. And, while this isn’t really a supplement, I have to mention the fact that all the text in the insert booklet is printed in Romain du Roi, a font that Louis XIV commissioned for his exclusive use in the 1690s--the kind of detail that only Criterion would come up with!|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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