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First, some stats for anyone looking for "official" validation of this
movie. In the Village Voice End of the Century poll of movie critics, THE
RISE OF LOUIS THE XIV placed behind only THE BICYCLE THIEF among all films
directed by the major Italian neo-realists (De Sica, Visconti and
Rossellini). I myself find this to be a stunning result, given that what
other Italio-neo-reo films there are (OSEESSIONE, OPEN CITY, PAISAN, LA
TERRA TREMA, UMBERTO D, VOYAGE TO ITALY, SENSO, THE LEOPARD...) but LOUIS
XIV's placing is not undeserved. In fact, in its own perverse way, it may
very well be the apotheosis of the neo-realist aesthetic.
I make this claim on several counts. First, of the Rossellini films I've seen, this one is pretty much the only one where Rossellini makes a wholesale abandonment of melodrama and completely embraces an objective documentary style that generates meaning through the patient, cumulative observation of scenes and settings. To really see the progression, we can make a comparison between this film and his earlier masterpiece STROMBOLI. Both films feature a protagonist at odds with his/her community, especially in matters of ritual and custom, which both films do an astounding job of capturing. Of course, whereas the heroine of STROMBOLI rejects these rituals and customs, eventually leading to her exile, Louis XIV decides to play the rules of his society to his advantage, literally wearing his hedonism and flamboyance on his sleeve -- and everyone else's. But this difference does not reflect what has evolved in Rossellini's filmmaking. The key difference is that with LOUIS XIV Rossellini does not once resort to the stormy passions or underlying rhetoric of his ealier work -- instead he chooses to let the moments speak for themselves. The moments he captures achieve a level of unspoken subtext unparalleled among his peers; nothing is given away as obvious, every moment and gesture feels utterly natural, and yet must be read and interpreted to generate the film's overall meaning.
The achievement is all the more remarkable given that the film itself is largely about the power of presentation -- which is certainly a central aesthetic theme of the entire neo-realist movement. Though the film is set in an ornate past that seemingly has nothing to do with the impoverished environs that have set the stage for countless neo-realist films, this radical change of time and place only adds more depth to the film's exploration of realism. Just as Louis creates an ornate reality full of lush surfaces with which to control his subjects, Rossellini has created a reality that is so detailed that it threatens to consume the audience in the illusion of a recreated time and place.
However, the generally maudlin cinematic powers wielded by DeSica/Zavattini, Visconti and early Rossellini seem almost totalitarian compared to what Rossellini does in LOUIS XIV -- people who complain that this movie is a slow, lethargic bore are missing the wonders of the observant moment that Rossellini constructs for our scrutiny. So much of the film is told in non-chalant moments, such as the dying bishop refusing to see the king until he has put on his makeup, or the way King Louis nonchalantly takes his mistress behind a bush while the rest of the procession is forced to stand by and wait. Like Louis' subjects, the audience of the film inhabits a perilous position, where either they dig their way through the seemingly harmless and inconsequential surfaces of what's being presented or risk being stranded in a meaningless cinematic experience. To which one may ask, what incentive does the audience have for having to try this hard? Well, a new appreciation of how cinema works, as well as history and politics, for starters, not to mention how all three might work together. With this film, Rossellini finally turns over what the neo-realist movement had been doing all along, knowingly or not: using the presentation of "reality" as a political act. This time, instead of spoon-feeding the audience with his agenda, he invites us to assume the position of power, taking an active role in the making of meaning.
I've gone on for much longer than I expected but now that I've given this film a lengthy moment of consideration I am convinced that this is one of the most brilliantly understated masterpieces of cinema -- now I can't decide whether I like this film more than STROMBOLI. In any event, it is also one of the greatest historical films, as well as one of the greatest films to examine the idea and nature of history -- as such it belongs in the company of THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS, PLATFORM, CITY OF SADNESS and THE PUPPETMASTER (or if those are too high-falutin', there's simpler stuff like THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE).
"The rise of Louis the Fourteenth" is an austere work ,close to
documentary.If you're looking for an Hollywoodian entertaining flick
,pass by.The scene which depicts King Louis's first "conseil" directly
comes from count Lomenie de Brienne's memoirs :the words Louis utters
are exactly the same.
This is the kind of film that should be shown in every school of the planet .It is a lesson many directors should pay attention to.All that matters is included:Louis 's sinister souvenirs of "La Fronde" which would lead him to surround himself with ministers from the bourgeoisie and to live far from Paris.The main subject of the movie is the taming of the nobles :Fouquet was the last of those arrogant lords,so his downfall was bound to happen (with a "little" help from Colbert,a merchant).It's a long way from Mazarin's death to the scenes in Versailles Palace where the nobles have become servants .They used to fight to keep their military and political power,now they would fight to be the one to hold out his shirt to their king when He gets up.They would become courtiers.
Rosselini had nothing to prove when he made this made-for-TV work:an Italian,he displayed a perfect command of such an important time in the history of my country.
I'm going to go ahead and make the rather bold statement that
Rossellini's biographical films are the true end and completion of the
project he started with the neo-realists. I do this in a rather
roundabout way involving personalist philosophy and Andre Bazin, but
what most interests me is where the other neo-realists ended up.
Fellini found a strange hybrid with elementary surrealism, De Sica
plunged into sentimentality, Visconti's outlook became increasingly
epic and grandiose. But in Rossellini we arrive at pure personality,
and pure reconciliation of physical circumstances and
self-determination. It is apparent that this is not a typically
exaggerated biography, but this is not mere truthfulness. It's all in
the approach, and Rossellini understood this perfectly. The shots are
very characteristic, and the sets have a low-budget, but Rossellini's
vision is the dominant, and very welcome, force of the film.
5 out of 5 - Essential
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.
Louis XIV was not judged by his contemporaries to be much of anything while Mazarin was alive. This film shows how with brains and style, he consolidated power by subtly weakening the nobility of France with "circuses and bread." Aristocrats obsessed with the King's latest style of coat while competing for his favor were not going to wage petty wars or rebel again. To keep them placated and diverted, Louis built Versailles - L'Île Enchantée, the 17th century version of Disneyworld. In that island of wonder and diversion, he turned his fractious nobles into groupies, hanging on is every word and gesture. He gave them plays, operas, masques, fine cuisine, wine, fabulous gardens to play in, and a style of living that required more money than their estates could earn. Versailles was their golden cage, and even with the door open, none wanted to fly out. A little more than a century later, his great-grandson would die on the guillotine, an end whose beginnings were sown in the isolation and excesses of the court he created to consolidate his power.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Roberto Rossellini was an intriguing director who made a handful of
great films and an awful lot of mish mash. While Rossellini never found
much popular acclaim for most of his movies, he certainly found it
among some of his fellow directors, notably Truffaut and Scorsese.
Whether that means Rossellini was a great director might depend on how
you much you appreciate artists praising each other. It is, however,
just about impossible to underestimate Rossellini's impact on
neorealism in movies, just as it's impossible not to take seriously any
director who could make Open City, Paisan and Il Generale Della Rovere.
So what is The Taking of Power by Louis XIV? Rossellini made it for French television when his career and reputation had faded. He was 60, and would be dead eleven years later. He still made movies regularly and, increasingly, worked in television on major presentations. He made movies because this is what directors do. He wasn't forgotten, exactly, and there were those who saw in him the neorealistic genius he once was. Perhaps he forgot along the way that the story must engage, and that dedicated technique may not always be enough. If Luigi Minecolli had been the director of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV instead of a director named Roberto Rossellini, would the TV production be remembered, even by cineastes? Well, who remembers the director of The First Churchills?
Louis, in 1661, is about to grasp the power of his throne. He's 22 years old and has worn the crown since just before his fifth birthday. The death of the power behind the throne, Cardinal Mazarin, gives Louis the opportunity to be the king, not just play at it. Louis succeeds so well we remember him as The Sun King. (Of course, for his last couple of decades he should be better remembered as The Death, Disaster and Crushing-Taxes-for-Everybody-But-the- Nobility King. But all this is another story.)
Rossellini not only shows us the intrigue, the primping, the groveling and the backstabbing that come with the accumulation of power, he shows us those realistic details that make cardinals and kings into men, not always inspiring men and sometimes dead men. This was a time when physicians diagnosed by way of a whiff of the chamber pot and who bled their patients with abandon. The death of Mazarin begins the movie, and the Cardinal's confession to his priest is amusingly self-serving. This scene, as with the movie, is so deliberate and calm as to want us to help speed God's hand in closing the Cardinal's eyes. The Cardinal has a lot of exposition to deal with before that happens.
And when it does, Louis, to the consternation of his ministers, his courtiers and his powerful mother, begins to make decisions for himself. There is intrigue, ego, avarice and ambition...and it all proceeds with such stateliness that it would be very hard going without all those magnificent wigs, velvet curtains, lush costumes, beplumed hats and the stultifying but amusing rules and courtesies of the court. Louis himself, played by Jean-Marie Patte, is a plump, short, shallow, spoiled but sly young man, who much prefers skinny dipping with his mistress than amorous visits to his wife. He sounds like Peter Ustinov. He looks ridiculous in his high wigs and his beribboned, belaced and bevelveted knickers. Louis must deal with his mother, with Fouquet, with the building of Versailles, with bringing the nobility to heel and with all those elaborate, lengthy 17-course meals he would eat in solitary splendor in front of his courtiers and ladies. In many ways the preparation of one of these meals, its nervous supervision, stately serving and blank-eyed consumption by the king is the best sequence in the movie.
I have no idea if Patte was simply a limited actor or whether he was directed poorly. One critic reports that Rossellini would not give the actors their dialogue until just before a scene, and insisted that they use written cheat boards out of camera range if they had trouble. If this is the case, we can only sympathize with Patte, who is forced to speak in ponderous epigrams and declarations of shrewd and emotionless intent.
The taking of power by Louis XIV...the history...is a great and dramatic story. The movie, on the other hand, looks just fine and, if you enjoy the high doings of those convinced they are our betters, interesting. But the teleplay also is dull, dispassionate and without pace. Patte's acting leaves a great void in the center of the story. Rossellini has produced a lavish, stately teleplay about a French king, undoubtedly exactly what his French producers wanted. I don't believe there is a trace to be seen of the Rossellini of Open City and Paisan.
A short movie that does an excellent job in conveying the gestalt of one of the most important moments in modern (post-renaissance) French history: the events leading up to the building of Versailles. One understands The Sun King in his context: a man whose hold on his crown -- and his life -- was at first shaky at best. Louis is understood in the context of his greater 'family', in particular the unfortunate Stewarts on the other side of La Manche. Not wanting to be subject to the same fate as his uncle, Charles I (who, for those of you who don't know, was overthrown by his Parliament and nobles, and then beheaded by the fanatically Puritan Oliver Cromwell) Louis conceives of Versailles as essentially a pretty prison for the nobility: by mandating their attendance at court they cannot conspire to overthrow him. Moreover, he establishes absurd rituals of etiquette and ludicrous costumes (the male peruke (wig) was introduced at this time) in order keep them bankrupt attempting to stay on top of court fashions.
Rossellini give us a magnificent lesson of history, and how his movie's title is well choose! Remarkable is the style, and the psychology of the young Louis, as a man full of his own genius, is excellent; we understand him, we understand each action which will conduct him to the summit of the real absolutism. Never before, a french director didn't explored the french meaning of the highness and nobility, the french mentality of this ancient time where the peoples of France sincerely believed that the king was divine. There were an Italian, an Italian who was flirting a while with the communism who enjoyed us with this splendid last sequence, and this last true picture of a true king highly thinking of his charge and his destiny. Maybe the Frenchmen are too busy with the ruins of their glorious past to effectively and really understand this past.
This film demands some patience on many levels, but the ultimate reward of immersion into a man's mind, into the methods a young, inexperienced king utilizes to immobilize possible enemies is worth the 94 minutes. There are various complaints among viewers that the sets are a little shabby, the performances wooden, the costumes too much--but keep in mind that director Rossellini was hired by French television, given a low budget and 26 days to produce a lavish historical film--the film he managed to create is a minor miracle of direction over almost insurmountable odds, including a non-professional, wooden lead that had to read his lines from cue cards--but looked not unlike the real Louis XIV; its fascinating to watch the young king quietly take in his challenges, and one by one overcome everything from a conniving noble to unsympathetic, domineering mother. The rather stately pace and enclosed spaces take some getting used to at first, but after about forty minutes, one can easily catch the spirit of the times and the cunning of Le Roi. Its a fascinating document on several levels, both from historical viewpoint and as a quality film made on a very low budget.
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