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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
Jean-Marie Patte, an office clerk moonlighting as an amateur actor, had terrible difficulty memorizing his lines, and had to read from cue cards in most of his scenes. Roberto Rossellini believed that Patte's awkward, unrehearsed nervousness mirrored that of Louis as he takes on the responsibilities of kingship. See more »
Informative and intriguing look at the early reign of Louis XIV, "The Sun King"
The story starts with the death of Cardinal Mazarin, who has been the de facto ruler of France for some time. Louis, until this point, content to frolic with mistresses and indulge in the arts, decides to take up the reins of state, much to the astonishment of the court. His mother has been waiting for this opportunity to once again become influential in affairs of state and is looking to place her man the Marquis de Tellier as prime minister. Louis clearly loves his mother very much, however decides that she should not attend the council of ministers and takes Colbert, the steward of Mazarin as his right hand. The film portrays Colbert as someone recommended to Louis by Mazarin on his deathbed. I think this is probably misleading, as, from my short readings on the subject Colbert was already well known to Louis.
Louis decides upon a route and branch restructuring of governance in France. He is haunted by an event from his childhood known as The Fronde, a sort of 17th century civil war that had almost claimed his life and had reduced parts of the country to brigandage. He decided on a pretty much totalitarian solution, which the historians refer to as absolutism, to become the "Sun" of France. That is, all affairs in France would be run by Louis, all citizens and nobles would derive their worth from Louis, just as nature derives all things from the sun. He believed that this was the natural order of things as ordained by God.
His mother and her agenda is not needed for this revolution. There's a quite touching scene between Louis and his maman where he is clearly pained at what he's doing to her (almost like sending her off to the old folks home).
He moves the entire court from Paris to Versailles (which undergoes a huge revamp), and institutes a preposterous new dress code. Not only that, but he requires the nobles to leave their estates and permanently reside in Versailles. Louis also wants to calm the people and sets Colbert a reformist agenda that will aim to lower taxes and reduce dependence on foreign manufacturers.
The reign of Louis XIV reminded me of the reign of Amenhotep IV (later called Akhenaten, or the servant of Aten), the pharaoh of Egypt who moved his entire court from Thebes out to a newly constructed city, Amarna, and attempted to totally erase the old religions in favour of the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun.
I felt the film was very energising from the start, in Louis here was a man who wanted to change France. We're shown that he is just a man like the rest of us, in his bed chamber he leads his courtiers in prayer, which he forgets halfway through, and has to mumble. Towards the end we see him alone in a chamber reading a book, learning like the rest of us.
Some people may not like this movie because the whole is very deadpan, which I feel is very realistic, but if you like a passionate French period drama like La Reine Margot, well this is very different. It seemed a very painterly movie, a lot of effort had been gone to with composition and the camera was very static. The costumes got pretty dreadful towards the end of the movie, Louis insisted on an overload of ribbons and lace, like he's setting out to humiliate his entire court.
So here we had a man, pharaoh, who decided to fashion his world in his manner, with the assurance of a sleepwalker. It is hard to judge him, it's hard for me to see the events as anything other than a page in history's baroque miscellany.
It's absolutely fascinating and has awoken in me an urge to find out more about the subject. Rossellini created a series of these films for television apparently he believed that television should be pedagogic. He was against barbarism. Note the very careful use of words, not learning or philistinism, pedagogy and barbarism. Luckily for him he's not around today to see what has become of TV.
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