Italian filmmaker’s ‘Louis XIV’ a different kind of historical costume drama

[13 January 2009]

By Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)


THE TAKING OF POWER BY LOUIS XIV 3 ½ stars Cast: Jean-Marie Patte, Raymond Jourdan, Silvagni, Katharina Renn, Dominique Vincent and Pierre Barrat Director: Roberto Rossellini Writers: Philippe Erlanger and Jean Gruault Distributor: Criterion Collection Not Rated

In a 1962 press conference, Roberto Rossellini declared that “cinema is dead.” It was a surprising statement from the Italian filmmaker who was best known as a pioneer of post-World War II neo-realism (“Open City,” “Paisan”) and as the man who scandalously ran off with Ingrid Bergman (she leaving behind her husband, Petter Lindstrom, and he dumping his mistress, actress Anna Magnani).

For Rossellini, the new purpose of moviemaking was to educate the general public about history. And, according to his son, Renzo Rossellini, the director viewed television as the medium that would “free mankind from ignorance.”

After an abortive attempt to make a film about the history of iron, Rossellini was hired by a French television network to direct a movie about the ascendency of France’s most powerful monarch, Louis XIV. The subsequent film, 1966’s “The Taking of Power By Louis XIV,” available on DVD for the first time this week (Criterion Collection, $29.95, not rated, spoken in French with English subtitles), was a success on both French TV and in French movie theaters, though it failed to achieve similar a similar status - either critically or financially - abroad. (For its initial U.S. release, in 1970, the film was entitled “The Rise of Louis XIV.”)

“The Taking of Power By Louis XIV” represents a different kind of historical costume drama. As Rossellini biographer Tad Gallagher says in “Taking Power,” a multimedia essay on the DVD, Rossellini’s approach to historical filmmaking emphasized “not battles or wars, but food and technology, mores and philosophy, science.” As in his post-war films, Rossellini’s realism consists of using genuine locations (instead of constructed sets) wherever possible, employing non-professional actors and paying precise attention to historical detail, however mundane.

The film, beginning in 1661 as the powerful minister Cardinal Mazarin lays dying, shows the 22-year-old king’s fearful cognizance of the fact that his English cousin, King Charles I, had been beheaded only 12 years earlier and a rebellion of French noblemen against the monarchy, known as The Fronde, had been suppressed less than a decade before. Louis, who had become the titular monarch at the age of 5, then decides to oppose his mother, Anne of Austria, and the nobles she favors, and to take more control and responsibility for himself.

In his successful drive for absolute power, Louis not only arrests the ambitious finance minister Fouquet, who had sought to replace Mazarin, but begins a series of actions to ensure that the nobility will always be dependent upon him - and loyal to him. These include the expansion of the Palace of Versailles and forcing the nobles to live there with him, where the king becomes the arbiter and exemplar of fashion and cultural and political life.

Rossellini’s depiction of French royal society - from dress, food and manners to the medical practice of “bleeding” and “purging of ill humors” - is fascinating for those of a historical bent, enabling a viewer to feel as though he or she is witnessing history unfold. Yet the absence of drama or conventional plotting can make for slow-going. Even Fouquet’s arrest is presented matter-of-factly, with little tension or suspense.

Similarly, some viewers will be put off by the cast’s lack of dramatic flair. Indeed, the young man portraying Louis, Jean-Marie Patte (an office clerk by profession), tends to deliver his lines in a monotone and rarely makes eye contact with his fellow cast members. Yet, as critic Colin MacCabe points out in a printed essay accompanying the DVD, Patte’s onscreen nervousness and difficulty remembering his lines (which forced Rossellini to provide cue cards for him to read), aptly demonstrated the timidity the young king needed to overcome to assert himself and his rule.

“The Taking of Power By Louis XIV” represented a significant and unusual turn for a world-famous film director. Rossellini continued to make historical films for television until his death in 1977.

Three of the director’s late films are included in a new box set, also released this week, on the Criterion Collection’s companion label, Eclipse. “Rossellini’s History Films - Renaissance and Enlightenment” (four discs, $59.95, not rated) brings together “Blaise Pascal” (1972), about the 17th century philosopher and mathematician; “The Age of Medici” (1973), a three-part series about the powerful political dynasty in 15th century Florence, and “Cartesius” (1974), about the 17th century writer/philosopher Rene Descartes.

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