Criterion // 1966 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // January 13th, 2009
Or, How Louis Got His Groove Back
In 1962, Roberto Rosselini announced to a stunned group of press, "Cinema is dead." Long enamored of film as an educational tool, he had given up hope that the cinematic world would explore that potential; for someone like Rosselini, that failure was intolerable. He instead turned to a medium that he hoped would be better suited to education -- television (you in the back -- stop snickering). For the next fifteen years, the father of Italian Neorealism created a number of films specifically for television. Of those, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is considered the best, and has been accorded the Criterion treatment. (A collection of three other Rossellini TV films, Rossellini's History Films -- Renaissance and Enlightenment, is being released alongside this title.) Let's find out just how royal this release is, shall we?
In March 1661, France stood on the brink of crisis. Technically, Louis XIV had been on the throne for seven years, but the reins of power were held by Cardinal Mazarin, whose political maneuverings had kept the various members of the court somewhat in check. Meanwhile, Louis busied himself with cards, drink, and women (think Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV plays). But now Mazarin is on his deathbed, and the nobility, particularly Superintendent of Finances Nicolas Fouquet, who has aggressively skimmed the nation's coffers, eagerly anticipate the prospect of expanding their personal power. Louis is pretty much an afterthought.
But Louis has other ideas. Still haunted by the Fronde, a series of revolts that forced him to flee the palace as a youth, and with the more recent memory of the 1649 execution of his uncle (Charles I of England), Louis fears what the future may bring. But instead of succumbing to that fear, as everyone -- including his own mother -- expects, Louis announces that he will assume full control of the government. Most expect him to quickly lose interest, but Louis confounds their expectation, particularly when he has Fouquet arrested for treason. Hiding behind a façade of imperiousness, he makes sweeping changes to the very fabric of the court -- moving the court to Versailles, expecting the nobility to live there, and adopting astoundingly extravagant habits in food and dress. Meeting with the royal tailors, he adds more and more finery to a single outfit, commenting that a single outfit should cost a nobleman a year's income.
Louis's plan is simple. Housing the court at Versailles will keep the court beholden to him and away from their power bases; in addition, the extravagant lifestyle will force the nobility to devote so much time and money to following suit that they will have neither the time nor the money to foment insurrection. Not only will the plan work, but Louis will establish such total control over government, French society, and French culture that he becomes known as "the Sun King."
Rosselini's work up to this point focused on the common individual, so at first glance, the royal subject matter seems out of place. But as the film proceeds, the commitment to detail starts to dominate, and that's where the film aligns with Rossellini's aesthetic. Sets are opulent and richly appointed. Costumes, even for the servants, are carefully accoutered -- and that's before Louis starts shaking up the fashion world. We don't just see Louis and the nobility struggling for control for the country, we see that struggle playing out in the midst of their everyday existence. We meet Louis when he is awakened in the morning; over a dozen servants and nobles come into the bedroom -- the servants to meet Louis's every need, the nobles to learn if Louis has fulfilled his conjugal duties the night before (a clap from the queen indicates that a good time was had by all). The result is the juxtaposition of the profound with the mundane, such as when the dying Mazarin refuses to see Louis until he can apply some makeup to hide his deathly pallor. The plot doesn't seek to artificially heighten the tension or reorder events to enhance the drama; we simply see the process of the transformation -- of Louis' taking power unfold. The closest thing to a dramatic concession is the very end, when Louis reads from Rouchefoucauld's Maxims: "Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily."
Particularly with the rich colors of the restored video, the film reminded the court of Scorsese's The Age of Innocence in its meticulous sense of detail. The goal isn't verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, but rather reality itself -- even if that reality is less than magnificent. The "finery" Louis cobbles together lacks the opulence of, say, Edith Head's creations for the Louis XV masquerade in To Catch a Thief; it's a ludicrous outfit that has sufficient lace, buttons, and other foofooraw to ensure a sufficiently steep price, but is clearly the work of someone who knew precisely jack about fashion design. But that outfit is accurate, based on various descriptions and paintings. The combination of the unassuming narrative and the attention detail results in the ultimate You Are There experience. It's not historical drama, it's history itself; in that effect you understand Rossellini's passion for both the material and the medium.
Assigning an acting score raises some issues. With the exception of Jean-Marie Patte's turn as Louis, the cast suffices, but nothing more. With few exceptions, most had little if any acting experience; fortunately for them, Patte makes everyone else look good by comparison (see Rebuttal Witnesses). Ultimately, though, the relatively weak performances nevertheless serve the story well, and that's really all one can ask of any cast.
The restoration is up to Criterion's usual standards. There's a little flaring with some bright reds, the occasional blemish here and there. There is some grain, but not nearly as much you would expect from a forty-year-old film. At the very end, right before the cut to the end titles, the image goes slightly out of focus for a split second, as though the cameraman's hand slipped. The mono audio track is clear, though it's admittedly hard to determine how clear the French is when you've got the subtitles right in front of you. The subtitles themselves could be cleaner, though.
The extras help you appreciate the film on its own merits. "Taking Power," a multimedia essay by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, highlights the elements that make the film distinctly Rossellini's, including the inventive use of Patte's performance. The interview with Rossellini's son Renzo is notable because Renzo, a second unit director, reveals that he filmed one of the larger scenes using a crane, even though his father hated the artificiality of crane shots. When his father saw the rushes, he praised the shot, never realizing how Renzo had filmed it. While the extras enhance your understanding of the film, they don't put the film in the context of his career. The gaps will not be a problem for those already familiar with Rossellini's work, but for those just beginning the journey, some broader perspective would have been useful.
Note: The appearance of famed musketeer D'Artagnan in the film is not a playful move by Rossellini; the man was the father of Italian Neorealism, after all. The Comte D'Artagnan was in fact the captain of the Musketeers at the time; a fictionalized account of his life was the basis for the Dumas novels.
Rossellini preferred to use non-professional actors, claiming that what they lacked in technique they made up for by grounding the film in reality. This penchant perhaps reaches its greatest expression in the "performance" of Jean-Marie Patte as Louis. Patte was an office clerk, and to call his performance wooden is roughly akin to calling Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich ethically challenged. If you can tell that a line reading is flat even though the actor is speaking a language you can barely understand, things are bad indeed. But that's what Rossellini was going for, and his direction not only made the best of a bad performance, it even used it to the film's advantage. Patte couldn't remember his lines, so in a scene in which Louis addresses the nobility, Rossellini put Patte's lines on a blackboard and placed it so that Patte had to look away from the nobles in order to read the lines; the idea was to illustrate Louis' fears by making him incapable of looking people in the eye. Throughout, Rossellini uses blocking and broad movement to convey the emotions a more polished performer could convey with a single glance or muted gesture. The amazing thing is, it more or less works. There are some absolute clunkers -- the scenes with Louis and his mother are particularly painful. But overall, Rossellini presents a believable image of a deeply insecure person who somehow manages to reimagine the world to suit him.
Critic Colin McCabe calls Patte's performance a triumph for Rossellini; that might be going a bit far. It would be more accurate to say that Rossellini's use of the performance is the only documented instance of someone making a silk purse from a sow's ear.
The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is a fascinating look at a pivotal moment in French history. Even as Louis emerges victorious, there's something bittersweet about the moment -- while he did consolidate his own power and set the stage for a fifty-four-year reign (counting from Mazarin's death, as opposed to Louis' actual coronation), his methods established a government-sponsored pattern of conspicuous consumption that in little more than a century would lead directly to the French Revolution and the execution of his great-grandson, Louis XVI.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Improved Subtitle Translation
* Wikipedia: The Taking of Power by Louis XIV
* Wikipedia: Roberto Rossellini