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. 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.