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Taking of Power By Louis XIV
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Filmmaking legend Roberto Rossellini brings his passion for realism and unerring eye for the everyday to this portrait of the early years of the reign of France’s “Sun King,” and in the process reinvents the costume drama. The death of chief minister Cardinal Mazarin, the construction of the palace at Versailles, the extravagant meals of the royal court: all are recounted with the same meticulous quotidian detail that Rossellini brought to his contemporary portraits of postwar Italy. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV dares to place a larger-than-life figure at the level of mere mortal.
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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. Is the movie worth four stars? Just barely.
This Criterion release looks just what it is, an older television program that has been well preserved. There are three extras that deal with Rossellini, his "history" films and the making of this one.
This film, shot for French television, is a cousin to Rossellini's historical films of the Enlightenment (The Age of Medici, Cartesius, and Blaise Pascal). This may be the best out of all four of those films. It's the most visually opulent of the four films, with stunning costumes and set design, and photographically it's beautiful. That's quite astounding considering it was shot on 16mm film, which doesn't age very well. Kudos to Criterion for restoring it well. While the performances in the Italian TV films were mostly perfunctory, in this film they are livelier and more interesting. It could be because Rossellini was working with direct sound (something he never did in his Italian films), and the performances are enriched because of that. Jean Marie Patte, who plays the king, is stiff at times, obviously reading from cue cards in a few scenes. Rossellini gave his actors their lines just before they shot, and had cue cards on the set if they couldn't remember, so it's not all Jean Marie's fault. It's a bit distracting, but it doesn't detract too much from the overall experience of the film.
There are some striking scenes in the film, one near the end film in a garden, and when a key rival of Louis is arrested. The courtoom intrigue is absolutely fascinating. There are also surprising parallels between today's world and the world inherited by Louis XIV. It's also fascinating to see Louis mature from a shy, spoiled, hedonisitic person to a mature, solid, and shrewd politican/king.
It's also unnerving to see doctors at the beginning of the film tend to Mazarin who leaves his fortune to Louis (the doctors, learned men of their time, bleed Mazarin in hopes of healing him. They also smell his chamber pot). The film is very dry, talky, and intellectual, so if you're expecting an HBO series that's occasionally historically accurate but shows gratuitous sex just because they can, you should skip this (even though they are funny scenes in the film dealing with sex). If you adjust to the rhythms and sensibility of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, it's absolutely fascinating stuff.
Criterion, as usual, does a nice job with the extras on the disc, one of which, a 'multimedia' essay (film clips are shown to illustrate the narration), I thought neatly explained many of Rossellini's directorial quirks, and added an entirely new dimension to the film. Jean-Marie Patte, who played the title role, was not a professional actor, although Rossellini supposedly used his wooden and unemotional acting to reflect certain qualities he wanted the audience to associate with Louis. That's all well and good if the viewer picks that up as they are watching the film - unfortunately I'm not that observant. I only end up feeling slightly uncomfortable at how uncomfortable Patte looks in the role. Not until after the 'essay' do I see what Rossellini was striving for - and I have to admit that I don't buy all of it, but I still found it extremely worthwhile as a short education on filmmaking.
Other extras are more concerned with the director rather than this particular film - and I found the documentary about Rossellini's later years to be most interesting. Evidently he was enamored with the new medium of television, seeing in it an opportunity for education and moral instruction, which explains many of the historical figures he chose to present in his last years. That attitude alone seems a bit morally instructive to me.
While there are certain elements to 'Power' that I thought were striking to the point of surrealism (near the end in the garden of Versailles, for one), there is also an inescapable feel to the film that reminds me of reenactment scenes from high school history class movies. That isn't a mark against the film so much as an attempt to describe its mood. Because of its odd nature, I'd advise potential viewers that they rent before they buy - while I enjoyed the film and recommend it, I'd be surprised if I ever feel the need to watch it again.
The film is presented in a 4 x 3 aspect ratio, and looks much like one might expect a television program from the mid-sixties to look like.
However, young Louis XIV takes his role seriously and goes to show his family, court and the rest of France that he has the power to change the history of this remarkable country and (his) dynasty. He singlehandedly changes political system, laws and forces nobility into submission by imposing financial dependence from them on his funds. He builds Versailles, which is one o the most magnificent palaces in the world to this day.
Film shows to the intricate detail on how Louis XIV accomplished all of this in a peaceful and powerful way without causing revolt form the peasants, middle classes and nobility. We see how cleverly he disposes of his enemies and teaches others by their example how to earn king's favor. It is amazing that young king who assumed power at age of 22 could accomplish all of this and give king of political and cultural France glory that lasts to this day.
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