Several months ago, Trevor Berrett and I recorded a podcast on Eclipse Series 14: Rossellini's History Films - Renaissance and Enlightenment. In that episode of our Eclipse Viewer program, we discussed three films that Roberto Rossellini directed in the early 1970s, after he had thoroughly settled into this final phase of his distinguished career. Though I'd already seen The Taking of Power by Louis XIV prior to that conversation, I now wish in hindsight that I would have taken more time to give it a closer study, since I think the film (along with the supplements on the disc) provides a better introduction to that set than just popping in those DVDs and doing one's best to make the necessary adjustment to Rossellini's unique style of filmmaking - simultaneously stripped down to its minimalist basics in regard to editing and shot construction, while also brimming with ornate frills and flourishes that pack the frame with visual information.
Compared to those later productions, dry and somewhat sprawling teleplays focused on historic figures like Lorenzo de Medici, Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is refreshingly direct, accessible and even, dare I say, entertaining. The film, which was originally conceived for television but found theatrical distribution after its premier, clocks in at a brisk 94 minutes, with a lean purpose of depicting how the renowned Sun King maneuvered his way from being a lightly regarded aristocratic figurehead to becoming the longest serving monarch in all of European history. Despite that impressive longevity (over 72 years on the throne in an era where peril and treachery were occupational hazards for royalty), Rossellini chose to zero in on a particularly crucial moment in time. The death of the Italian Cardinal Mazarin, when Louis was still in his early 20's, created a hazardous rift in the architecture of power. To this point, the kings of France had been accustomed to delegating governance of the country to various ministers, and those who were poised to fill the void created by the cardinal's departure presumably had every reason to expect that their schemes of flattery to the boy king (who inherited the crown when he was just five years old) and the loyalties they had cultivated within the royal court, including the king's incessantly scheming mother, would yield the payoff they so clearly deserved (or so they assumed.) However, the most ambitious among them wound up terribly disappointed, as Louis turned out to be quite a shrewd manipulator of strategic alliances, calculated secrecy and even sartorial fashions.
Beyond the typical palatial intrigues that one has come to expect in such stories, one of the most fascinating revelations from this film is how Louis XIV used the elaborate affectations of garments spilling over with lace and ornaments to effect bold power plays, basically intimidating his subjects into paying close attention to the latest fads as an expression of their loyalty and trustworthiness. He recognizes, and brilliantly exploits, the vanity, shallowness and hypocrisy of those aristocrats who strive so relentlessly to position themselves near to the center of power - namely, himself. And in developing a myriad of mechanisms - forced relocations to the relatively remote and isolated palace of Versaille, a steady stream of government largesse that fostered dependency on his centralizing control over the economy, and an overbearing peer pressure among the assorted rivals to constantly outperform each other in obeisance to the throne - Louis succeeded in basically gobbling up every last speck and symbol of authority known at the time. The film's penultimate scene portrays the apotheosis of Louis as he's surrounded by awestruck admirers, the assembled aristocrats of 17th century France, amid the splendor of his palace gardens in full bloom.
But we finally part ways with the king in the isolation of his personal chamber, after he strips out of his flamboyant costume into garments more practical (though still indisputably luxurious), to offer one last meditation on his pathway to power:
There is a loftiness that does not come from fortune. It's a certain air of superiority which seems to destine us for greatness. It's a prize that we give to ourselves imperceptibly. It's by virtue of this quality that we usurp the deference of other men, and it is this quality which places us above them more than birth, dignity or even merit.Time-tested words of self-help for today's would-be Louis Quatorze...
Rossellini, in his noble but seemingly futile quest to transform broadcast TV into a culturally edifying means for improving society, took a meticulously detailed approach in recreating the physical environment, interior decor, apparel, customs and rituals of Louis' daily life. Surrounded by servants, pampered with lavish privileges and a constantly hovering flock of attendants catering to his every whim, the overall impression of a post-medieval cult blinded by its insane devotion to the trappings of royal pageantry, supposedly undergirded by the "divine right of kings," stood out to me as the most remarkable takeaway from the film. Especially when one reflects on just how minimal a budget the director had to work with: roughly the equivalent of $20,000 in today's dollars, according to Rossellini's son Renzo, interviewed on one of the disc supplements. Even if one assumes that the sets and costumes and furnishings were basically donated from any number of museums or other institutional archives of such materials and any number of cost cutting measures one can imagine, that's still remarkably efficient, and I think he achieves a rather powerful effect of immersing the viewer into that world.
On top of that, he incorporates hundreds of extras, all carefully arranged to fill out various crowd scenes, and utilizes ingenious practical visual effects to depict some of the architecture and cityscapes that would have otherwise been impossible to capture on film because the actual locations (the Louvre, the palace of Versaille) had changed so drastically from how they looked in the time of Louis XIV. He even stages an impressive and memorable deer hunting scene, an elaborate spectacle complete with a pack of hunting dogs, mounted squires and a few dozen attendants who patiently bide their time while the king takes one of his hand selected maidens into a secluded patch of woodland shade for implied sexual indulgence. Violence, decadence and pomposity, all entitled to the extreme and artfully captured in a single gesture.
The more accustomed I become to Rossellini's aesthetic, the more ardently I admire what he accomplished in these films. Though they are most definitely an acquired taste, those that I have seen (these four, plus his film on Socrates, available on Hulu Plus) are practically essential viewing for modern students of the great men of history that they portray. I hope that Criterion finds the means to put more of these unique and thoughtfully presented films in front of us.