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1661: Cardinal Mazarin dies. In the power vacuum, the young Louis asserts his intention to govern as well as rule. Mazarin's fiscal advisor, Colbert, warns against Fouquet, the Surintendant who's been systematically looting the treasury and wants to be prime minister. Fouquet believes Louis will soon tire of exercizing power; he overplays his hand, offering a bribe to Louis's mistress to be his ally. She reports this to the king who arrests Fouquet. Louis and Colbert design a brilliant strategy to keep merchants making money, nobles in debt, the urban poor working and fed, and peasants untaxed. Years later, in a coda, we see Louis exercising the power of the sun. Written by
on how to do a classy-but-dark low-budget costume drama by Roberto Rossellini
It doesn't seem to be the same filmmaker; at first, if one were to say that this, The Taking of Power by Louis the XIV, were directed by the same man who lensed the "post-war" trilogy of Open City, Paisan and Germany Year Zero, without looking at the credits in the opening minutes, I would say you were mad. It looks stiff, at first, without the same bursts of passion and rugged documentary style that highlighted those films, or the passions of the films he made with his wife, Ingrid Bergman.
But sticking with the film, the look and what is revealed with every little glance, every head turn, every cut away or motion to move, reveals a filmmaker who is in fact creating a film with immense conflict, taking an eye on a historical figure who was filled with fear, so much so that it drove him to be a cold force of domination in France. Louis (non-professional actor Jean-Marie Patte) doesn't really trust anyone, not even his mother, the Queen, and it's curious that Rossellini doesn't even feature him until nearly fifteen minutes into the 95 minute running time (at first the film looks to be about a Cardinal, played by the very convincing Silvagni, on his death bed). But, again, sticking with it, we see a tale of a King who could take a hold of power not by getting into hysterics or enraged, but by a stare and way of looking and speaking, out of beady eyes and a toneless baritone.
This is in some part an odd credit to Patte, who in move not unlike Robert Bresson was chosen as a first-time actor and apparently never went again in front of the lens. Indeed he looks nervous in front of the camera, and unlike Bresson Rossellini, who according to the DVD notes had only a budget of the equivalent today of 20 grand (that's right folks, 20 grand) and about three weeks to shoot it in, didn't have the time or patience to break down his actor with so many takes. In a way this is a very clever move by Rossellini, but it works to even further an objective that might have been lost or not really met by a "better" actor. I'm almost reminded of a stiffer, less bad-jokey George W. Bush in this Louis XIV, a character who everybody in his council and company pays heed to, even if they don't take him much seriously - at first, anyway.
The film also is shot gorgeously, but not always in a manner to get your attention. While Rossellini navigates the story, of Louis facing down a traitor in his ranks, Fouquet (Pierre Barrat) and takes hold as a King who takes his advice from a very small knit group, he stages scenes without a trace of melodrama. In his own way Rossellini is still practicing his own form of neo-realism, only instead of on the streets its in the royal palaces and banquet halls, the fields where the dogs are let loose on hunting day, the meals prepared with a documentary-style precision. Except for one crane shot (ironically directed by Rossellini's son, Renzo, on a day he wasn't there to shoot), it's shot with the simplicity of a filmmaker who trusts his craft so innately that he doesn't need to second guess himself, whether it's in a very tense scene where all the drama is boiling under the surface (or erupting, as happens once or twice between Louis and his mother Queen) or those shots panning across the royal courtyard towards the end.
It should be noted, that this is for those with a taste for historical-period dramas, and admirers of the filmmaker. If you're made to watch this in a class without much interest beforehand, it might not be easygoing. Yet for the acquired taste it is compelling cinema, shot for TV but made with a taste for storytelling meant to be seen on a screen that can be seen every look of horror on Patte's face or moment where the colors and costumes and sets seem to threaten to overwhelm the "protagonist". It's not Coppola's Marie-Antoinette, that's for sure.
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