French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud first came to world cinema-goers’ attention with his lead performance as Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical classic “The 400 Blows.” Truffaut was so impressed by Leaud’s performance that he had him reprise the character in four subsequent films.
But Truffaut would not be the only renowned film director Leaud would work with over the decades. As the currently ongoing Pacific Film Archive film series “Jean-Pierre Leaud At 75” shows, the actor has also performed under such top-flight directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Olivier Assayas, and Aki Kaurismaki.
Albert Serra’s “The Death Of Louis XIV,” the most recent of the films reviewed here, sees Leaud take on the titular lead role. One of the astounding facets of the film is that despite being bedridden for most of the film’s running time, Leaud’s dying monarch manages to dominate the attention of both the film’s characters and the viewer
This description is not an exaggeration. The dying Louis had by the film’s start ruled over France for 72 years and a few months. The Sun King’s accomplishments would include founding the Palace of Versailles and ushering in a golden age of French literature through his patronage of such writers as Moliere and Racine. Perhaps the record-setting length of Louis XIV’s reign would cause more than a few subjects to believe the French king would rule forever…or at least that it would be hard to imagine France continuing without his presence.
Much of the film takes place in the King’s bedchamber. Most of the room is in shadow. Where there are brief patches of illumination provided by candles, hands and faces seem to swim out of the darkness and dimness. The viewer feels as if they’re watching the titular monarch’s life force symbolically get slowly swallowed by his coming demise.
Yet the king’s servants from Dr. Fagon on down do their best to prevent or delay the inevitable. Brief respites from Louis’ visible sufferings are seized upon as signs of his slowly regained strength. The fading monarch gets treated with such outlandish cures as an elixir whose primary ingredient is animal urine. However, despite all their good intentions, these loyal servants cannot keep their beloved Sun King from ultimately sinking into the twilight of his life and reign.
Aside from the inevitability alluded to in the title, the palpable darkness seen in Serra’s film also hints at the medical ignorance of Dr. Fagon and the academic lecturers called in for consultation. They don’t amputate the King’s gangrenous leg, even though gangrene would be Louis’ eventual cause of death. Instead, there is talk of bleeding the weakened monarch in mistaken hopes of speeding his recovery. The King is also kept separated for weeks from his beloved dogs, possibly because the animals were erroneously thought to be disease vectors. In light of the events portrayed, the film’s last line of spoken dialogue possesses both rueful optimism and ironic commentary
On the other hand, Serra’s heavy use of shadows makes his film difficult to watch for a couple of reasons. Relying on characters’ body parts to swim out of the bedchamber’s shadows can be difficult in those moments where it’s hard to tell what action is occurring onscreen or even whether the camera is pointing at Louis’ face. The other problem is the film’s heavy emphasis on microscopic actions to provide the film’s drama, such as the sound of less labored breathing or Louis’ raising of an eyebrow. Not everyone has the capacity to remain alert for such miniscule details. Liable to leave the theater quickly are viewers with short attention spans.
Yet it’s one of “The Death Of Louis XIV”’s ironies that this drama of microscopic shifts in health gives Serra’s film a greater air of realism. A person’s death doesn’t always occur with the swiftness of a light being switched off. As the prolonged process of Louis’ death shows, dying can occur slowly or even be confused with a possible turn towards recovery. Odds are Serra knows that modern society takes an out of sight, out of mind attitude towards seeing other people die from prolonged illness. His historical film forces the viewer to own that cultural ignorance and move past it.
Leaud’s improvisational acting style makes him a perfect match to play the dying monarch. His off the cuff solutions to physical problems turned monumental with his sudden physical weakness are for a time workable. He avoids disappointing his dinner guests with his inability to join them by acknowledging their kind presence with a stylish salute of his hat. He listens to arguments for an early advance of money in the vain hope of being able to render a simple command decision.
And yet, the dying French monarch isn’t willing to completely give up his personal pleasures. Even when he’s in dire need of water, the life-giving liquid needs to be served in a crystal goblet. And despite not being in a position to enjoy sexual pleasure, King Louis can still ask Dr. Fagon about the noblewomen he’s physically examined and seek the physician’s professional opinion regarding the shapeliness of their naked bodies.
Serra’s film, in its way, is an interesting narrative experiment which will be of selective audience appeal.
In contrast to Serra’s film, Leaud makes a cameo appearance in period garb in Jean-Luc Godard’s classic “Weekend.” Since the Godard film can be described as a funhouse mirror version of late 1960s France, Leaud’s anachronistic appearance as notorious French revolutionary St. Just fits right in with the environment of this “film found in a dumpster.”
Viewers who haven’t heard of St. Just or understood the references to 1967’s Six Day War or U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson may wind up feeling adrift. Yet Godard’s film is not that interested in commenting on political developments at the time of its making except as jokes. “Weekend”’s bigger aesthetic and evergreen goal involves cheerfully feeding the film’s avatars of bourgeois values and attitudes through the wood-chipper of savage satire.
The approach to Godard’s film that makes sense for this writer is to treat it as a cinematic analog of an Alexander Calder mobile. The plot set-up serves as the pivoting rod equivalent. To secure an inheritance for themselves, married bourgeois couple Corinne (MIrielle Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne) Durand take a weekend drive to the countryside town of Oinville. But their avaricious plans soon collapse in a surrealistic flurry.
If “Weekend”’s plot is the film’s figurative pivoting rod, it’s the unexpected moments and images Godard attaches to the plot that makes his film timeless. The film’s most indelible scene involves a small country road in a seemingly unending state of traffic gridlock. An apparently endless tracking shot follows Corinne and Roland’s car as they attempt to tortuously pass by this insanely long line of stopped vehicles. The occasional title card keeps time of the literal hours that crawl by as the Durands’ car slowly inches forward. Another title card, this one with the film’s name, flashes occasionally on screen as if to mock the freedom of time and movement that’s culturally associated with car ownership. Unsurprisingly, the pan of this supposedly permanent gridlock shows the various ways occupants of other cars have resigned themselves to waiting things out. In a way, the Durands and the nameless people stuck in traffic individually possess the desire for a relaxing weekend country drive. But having those individual desires get culturally stoked to the point of attempted en masse fulfillment ironically ensures that very few of these driving parties will have their desire slaked.
What eventually happens to Corinne and Roland turns out to be the least interesting or important thing in Godard’s film. As avatars of bourgeois greed taken to the Nth level, they are incapable of looking beyond their materialistic self-interest. For example, the miracles they want God to perform involve expensive vacations and a fleet of high-end cars.
One of the film’s funniest moments plays off this avarice. Corinne’s reaction to escaping with her life from a fiery car crash doesn’t involve thanking fortune or the stars for surviving. Instead, she wails about the fire burning up her expensive handbag.
“Weekend” mocks more than just individual bourgeois materialism. It skewers the political conditions that make bourgeois comfort possible at less fortunate people’s expense. In a great moment, the starving Corinne and Roland ask a pair of garbage men for pieces of their incredibly large sandwiches. The couple receive tiny sandwich pieces having the same symbolic size as the inadequate development aid rich countries bestow on poorer countries.
Admittedly, the film’s treatment of women can feel problematic. Having Corinne apparently raped offscreen by a wandering man doesn’t make the moment less queasy. Nor is a scene where a couple of eggs and a raw fish are being cooked offscreen on a woman’s vagina feel completely inoffensive.
Yet those questionable moments are outweighed by just how much of “Weekend” feels emotionally prescient. A savage fight over an accidentally broken headlight seems like a spiritual precursor to present day road rage. The incredibly shallow materialism epitomized by Corinne and Roland has its modern equivalents in the activities of the Kardashian clan. The endless gridlock that seems a satirical anomaly in Godard’s film has now been normalized as part of daily commuting life.
A bounty of delightfully absurd moments keep “Weekend” from being buried in an avalanche of self-seriousness. A man in a telephone booth drives the bourgeois anti-heroes nuts by singing his phone conversation. A guerilla group has no problem letting a drummer bang away on a full drum set and reveal their countryside camp’s location to outsiders. Radio code names reference such film characters as Johnny Guitar. Legendary French revolutionary St. Just (Leaud) appears in the present day to declaim some of his political philosophy.
Yet “Weekend”’s drily absurd moments wind up having the tang of graveyard humor given more serious occurrences in the film. Dead people are treated as a survival resource, whether it takes the form of cannibalism or having the corpses from car crashes looted for necessities. The grim fate bestowed on philosopher Charlotte Bronte shows that the free play of the mind has no purchase in the mentality of the acquisition-minded. If anything, Godard’s fictional world mocks France’s egalitarian motto of “equality, liberty, fraternity” by showing it means in practice looking for ways to get even slightly ahead of one’s neighbors.
The film concludes on an ambiguous note marking “the end of cinema.” It could be a reference to a consequence of the collapsed world depicted in “Weekend,” the end of a heavily technology-dependent artistic medium. It could also be a comment on the medium’s end as primarily one for celebrating bourgeois values. Perhaps the meaning of Godard’s comment needs to be gleaned in the same way one must be willing to find individual points of comprehension in this often scabrous satire.
Compared to Godard’s film, Aki Kaurismaki’s “La Vie De Boheme” is fairly straightforward. It adapts Henri Murger’s 1851 novel, joining the ranks of such well-known adaptations as Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” However, Kaurismaki’s depiction of the stressful and very precarious lives of its three creative characters may dispel the glamor affecting those entranced by the romantic image of the struggling artist.
The Paris where Kaurismaki’s film takes place is not the one of bright lights and grand romance. Instead, it’s the city of incredibly filthy and garbage strewn alleys. The apartments the film’s three creatives live in collectively give off an air of perpetual draftiness and continual chill. A bar serves (probably cheap) red wine in a shot glass. Romantic passion, when it is expressed, is perfunctory and gives way to sexual business very quickly.
Don’t look to Kaurismaki’s film to find yet another indulgence in the bourgeois fantasy of a society unwilling to recognize a person’s true worth. While the three principal creatives personally believe in their talent, what they actually produce falls far short of their projections. Writer Marcel believes people want to read or perform a 21-act play. Artist Rodolfo produces paintings that will inspire cringing rather than admiration. An informal performance of self-styled avant-garde composer Schaunard’s music is hilariously awful in its sincerity.
Having wealthy people pay money to Marcel and Rodolfo doesn’t mean that the above assessment of their pronounced lack of talent is wrong. The financier who backs the writer’s proposal for a magazine seems more persuaded by Marcel’s fast talking than demonstrable talent. The wealthy sugar company man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who likes Rodolfo’s art so much he’s willing to collect his work demonstrates an utter absence of critical taste. Then again, since the role of Leaud’s character is that of a deus ex machina, his lack of taste at least helps Rodolfo to keep financially going at critical points in his life.
The precarity of Rodolfo’s life is not helped by his legal status as an undocumented Albanian immigrant. Yet like his friends and fellow would-be creatives, real precariousness and a dependence on luck are accepted as part of the bohemian lifestyle.
Tossing a romantic relationship into the bohemian life turns out to be an ill-fated life choice. Artistic obsessions take precedence over putting in the work to make a relationship work. Even the functional romance between Rodolfo and Mimi ends thanks to the latter contracting plotdevice-itis, a vaguely fatal disease usually afflicting women. Symptoms of this familiar disease include a miraculous avoidance of physically withering the disease sufferer.
What winds up impressing the viewer more is the film’s unsentimental portrayal of the generally hardscrabble nature of the bohemian life. Marcel doesn’t let the cutting off of his water prevent him from brushing his teeth. Nor does he neglect to exploit what legal angles he can to keep the landlord who evicted him from disposing of his personal property. Thanks to a pickpocket, Rodolfo loses a sudden financial windfall from the sugar man almost as quickly as he suddenly receives it.
Kaurismaki ultimately admires these three bohemian friends. They’re willing to sacrifice for and help each other out. But then, they are cultural gamblers who are betting the perceived strength of their talent on the tantalizing possibility of success. Whatever the viewer’s feelings about Marcel’s, Rodolfo’s, and Schaunard’s individual talents (or lack of same), the many uncertainties of this gamble make them braver or at least more persistent than those happy to trade continual uncertainty for the perceived security of the non-threatening or non-challenging life.
(“The Death Of Louis XIV” screens at 7:45 PM on August 30, 2019. “La Vie De Boheme” screens at 7:00 PM on August 21, 2019. Both of these screenings and the other screenings in the “Jean-Pierre Leaud At 75” film series take place at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley). “Weekend” is available for streaming on The Criterion Channel (www.criterionchannel.com ). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to www.bampfa.org .)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment