Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

30— La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966)

La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV

Originally conceived as an interim project, as we have seen, La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, 1966) has since become Rossellini's most widely appreciated didactic film, often ranked with Paisan and Voyage to Italy as one of the greatest films of his career. This is all the more amazing when one realizes that the entire shooting was completed in some twenty-three or twenty-four days, working five hours a day. Postproduction, thanks to Rossellini's reliance on the zoom lens for in-camera editing, took only another few days, and the entire project was completed for about 100 million lire, or approximately $130,000.[1] Nonprofessional actors were used, reducing expense and avoiding the clunky phoniness that results when implausibly beautiful stars impersonate historical figures, but the film's sets and costumes, given the tiny budget, are surprisingly sophisticated. Money was also saved through Rossellini's standard, elaborate system of matte and mirror shots, enabling him to include, for example, a thoroughly "believable" scene of the building of Versailles.

In this film Rossellini turns for the first time to what was to become the standard formula for all of the historical-didactic films to come: focusing upon a single individual—always male—not so much for his own importance, but for his "representativeness." The grand sweep of L'età del ferro and La lotta , now that the main outlines of history have been sketched in, gives way to the more intense examination of historically specific periods.[2] (Again, though, Rossellini's insistence on the historical specifics of a given period must be seen in the context of his view of a basic, unchanging human nature.) What seems especially ironic is the fact that this first attempt is perhaps the most perfect. This may be be-


cause the intensely pictorial and "spectacular" film focuses expressly on Louis' seizure of power, which he accomplishes precisely through the mounting of spectacle; thus the medium itself is implicated thematically. Here the very idea of the film lies, for once, in its articulation of gesture and image, not in its words, as with virtually all the other didactic films.

Louis XIV opens with a static, painterly long shot of peasants at a dock across the river from a castle. This painterliness will continue throughout the film, and some interior scenes, especially, look forward to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon . In an important article on Louis XIV , the late Martin Walsh plausibly suggests Vermeer and Rembrandt.[3] He also convincingly maintains that the film's painterliness reduces its "degree of 'naive' realism" and suggests "the point of origin for our contemporary revisualization of a seventeenth century milieu."[4] Again, we can see that the film does not seek to represent the age directly, but rather to represent its prior representations.

In addition, the opening scene is important because, as James Roy MacBean has pointed out, it is the only scene that has been completely invented and because the peasants are virtually excluded from the rest of the film.[5] What they say is also significant, for they speak disparagingly of the English king who has just been beheaded, and briefly complain about the prerogatives of wealth and authority. Nevertheless, MacBean's insistence that this scene examines "the economic foundations and ideological overtones which enlist the common masses within the socioeconomic system of the French monarchy"[6] is a vast overstatement. Moreover, everything else in this film goes in the opposite direction, toward an ambiguous glorification of the king's accession to power through the manipulation of spectacle, and the peasant viewpoint is never heard again. It is clear that this scene was meant to serve as a kind of earthy counter to everything that follows, but during the next ninety minutes its exemplary force is completely overwhelmed.

In the following scene, doctors attend the dying Prime Minister Mazarin, the rather corrupt cardinal who has been the chief tutor of the young playboy King Louis XIV. Interestingly, the doctors see reality in terms of metaphor, rather than literally. When they debate whether or not to bleed Mazarin once more, one of them reasons that "the more bad water you take from the well, the purer it is; the more a mother feeds her baby, the more milk she has." Metaphors are important to Louis as well, and he delights in calling himself the "Sun King," from whom everything shall flow. This relation of the metaphoric to the literal nicely replicates the relation of appearance to reality, the film's central theme.

Finally, we are introduced to the king, but only after a long-take sequence showing his serving girl's morning chores. The ceremony of the levee, or king's rising, follows, the king mumbles through his prayers, and an obliging courtier explains to a fellow observer that the queen's handclapping signifies that the king has accomplished "his conjugal duty." The king goes to see the nearly moribund Mazarin, who, in a neat foreshadowing of Louis' later strategy to take control, spends a great deal of time applying makeup to look better for his sovereign. The king next asserts that he will take over the actual governance of the kingdom, but no one, including his mother, believes him until he refuses to let her attend council meetings. His chief assistant in this task will be Colbert,



The king (Jean-Marie Patte) attends the dying Mazarin (Silvagni)
in  La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV  (1966).

the son of a merchant and a palpable symbol of the rising middle class, who has great plans for the industrialization of France.

What follows is one of the more brilliant moments of the film, a Renoirean hunting sequence in which the camera follows a stag being chased by dogs at incredible speed. The scene ends when the king takes his mistress into the woods. His absence is filled by the plotting of Fouquet, his surintendant of finances, who refuses to take Louis seriously. Fouquet finally goes too far in attempting to bribe the king's mistress, and, in an elaborately staged arrest purposely undertaken for maximum theatrical effect in Fouquet's home base of Nantes, Louis removes him from the stage. The entire arrest is shot from a very high angle, exactly copying Louis' subjective point of view on the events; he and the camera seem to become complicitous in the elaboration of the double spectacle of politics and filmmaking. What Louis has realized, he says, is the truth of Fouquet's words: "Minds are governed more by appearances than by the deep nature of things."

From this moment on in the film, all interest centers on Louis' struggle to subjugate the nobles through the pleasures and burdens of spectacle. He purposely sets out to create a new, garishly elaborate style of dress, orders the nobles to live in his castle so they are completely in thrall to his disposition, and builds


Versailles on a deliberatively excessive scale. The culmination of this strategy comes when the king turns himself into a secular icon in a stunning scene in which he reveals his elaborate new dress, and the visual power of his presence coalesces perfectly with the power of film itself to create spectacle. A courtier who has not been able to keep up with the new fashions is made to feel utterly beyond the pale of civilization.

Perhaps the film's greatest moment of spectacle, however, is the famous banquet scene. Situated behind the ever-present spatially controlling table, the king eats alone, course after elaborate course, with his brother and other notables in attendance, serving, tasting the wine, unlocking "the king's meat," to which everyone in the kitchen has bowed on its way upstairs. Another dimension is added to the film's self-reflexivity in the kitchen as we follow the chef, who stands on a platform, directing every step of yet one more spectacle. When the king is served his wine, in another baroque ritual, the viewer also realizes the truth of Baldelli's observation that what we are watching is the "holy mass of absolute power." These shots continue for a long time, until we are as surfeited with the opulent display as the king himself must secretly be. He calls for music, a man of the court approaches the camera to execute his wishes, and, as the camera moves backward, we realize for the first time that this entire scene has been witnessed by hundreds of fawning courtiers—an audience, like us.

As the director has pointed out, it was actually his son Renzo who shot this sequence, since the elder Rossellini was visiting his hospitalized daughter Isabella in Italy. What Rossellini perhaps did not know about this scene was described to me by Renzo in 1979:

I used a little trick in that scene that I never dared confess to my father. Since I had to move back from the table, gradually discovering the crowd watching the king eat, I had to use a little dolly moving backward because I had to raise up to see their heads. This little dolly is something that he would absolutely never have used, because he thought it was totally vulgar. So I had to do the whole thing secretly, taking advantage of the fact that he wasn't in France at the time. The production director, who swore never to say a word about it, helped me to sneak the dolly onto the set. And my father never found out.

Though it is indeed possible Rossellini père never found out—he rarely reviewed his films—it is hard to imagine that in the editing process, at least, this very obvious dolly (the courtier walks so far forward, toward the receding camera, that the king finally disappears from the frame, an impossibility in a zoom shot) would have escaped his sharp eye. Perhaps the father was more indulgent than the son imagined.

In the final scene the king is promenading in his garden, his retinue trailing behind him. The music on the sound track, used sparingly and delicately throughout the film, now begins a melancholy plaint, and suddenly we become aware of the immense loneliness of power. The king is reading from a little book, which he takes inside with him, as his courtiers make way. Once inside he is, for the first time in the film, completely alone. He begins stripping himself of his gaudy finery, the coat, the grotesque wig, the bright sashes; there is no music


and no camera movement until, finally, he goes to the closet and puts on a coat of the plainest style. (During this sequence everyone else remains outside, presumably continuing the spectacle.) He sits down, and a deep sense of isolation seems to overtake him as he begins to read aloud maxims of the seventeenth-century moralist François de la Rochefoucauld. The second one is the enigmatic "Ni le soleil ni la mort se peuvent regarder fixement" (Neither the sun nor death can be looked at directly). Becoming pensive, the king closes the book as the camera zooms in. He repeats the maxim aloud. The music recommences, he picks up the book once more, and the film ends.

Many of the elements of Rossellini's technique that we have been tracing since the very beginning of his career reappear in Louis XIV , perhaps in their most fully realized form. The film is shot almost totally in plans-séquences made possible by the alternately static and dynamic Pancinor zoom lens, which moves easily from a close-up to a two-shot to a medium shot, all in the same take. (Even when a rare intercut reaction shot breaks the long take, it is clear that the basic shot was originally filmed without a pause, and therefore could have been even longer that it appears in the final version.) Nor is there any plot to speak of, as the above summary indicates, but rather seven or eight nearly self-contained episodes. If there is a single recurring dramatic element (beyond that of the idea of gaining power) that causes a kind of "suspense," pulling the viewer from episode to episode, it is manifested in the character of Fouquet, who refuses to believe that the king is serious about ruling directly, who tries to bribe the king's mistress, and whose brilliantly choreographed arrest constitutes whatever climax this film can be said to have. Similarly, Rossellini's penchant for dedramatization here reaches its zenith: the idea of the events, their historical significance, is what is dramatic and exciting, since the characters' dialogue, especially that of the king, is delivered in a rapid, clipped monotone that is utterly unconvincing in the normal sense of the word.[7] We are thus led to understand a historical process rather than to take sides with a character with whom we identify emotionally. This dynamic works especially well here because the film is not really about Louis XIV at all, but rather, as the proper translation of its title indicates, his taking of power. Thus, the interest revolves around a historical mechanism, a dynamic series of staged events aimed at a specific outcome, rather than around the fate of the character himself. In fact, the events portrayed in this film probably occupy fewer than ten pages of Philippe Erlanger's four-hundred-page biography of Louis, upon which the film was based. But these events, for Rossellini, are the most significant, for they constitute the first signs of the formation of the modern state and the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Even more radical is Rossellini's use of temps mort , for long moments are devoted to the supposedly "irrelevant" details of everyday life. Probably the most famous example of this is the long take of the king's servant, who, upon waking, opens shutters, takes out the king's clothes, folds her own pallet, all with such a natural, unhurried air that the famous tranche de vie kitchen scene of the maid in De Sica and Zavattini's Umberto D. (1952) comes to mind. The scene in Rossellini's film also correlates well with Louis' deadpan delivery, which Rossellini sees as being more authentic, and which serves to put events that are,


after all, merely retrospectively significant, on the same dramatic footing as the obviously mundane.[8] This technique also creates, especially in the beginning of the film, a great proliferation of details that compete for our attention. The king, who has not yet established himself as the sole source of power, is thus little more than another object, another piece of visual information. As he gradually gains in control, however, he seems to take over the very screen itself. By the end of the film, we see him alone: his conquest of power and, concurrently, of the cinematic space, is complete.

All of this can perhaps make Rossellini seem very Brechtian after all, but a great deal more has been claimed in this direction than is warranted. Because Rossellini, like Brecht, wants us to think about what we are seeing, and because the main action of the film, Louis' creation of spectacle to achieve his ends, so clearly parallels the director's own mise-en-scène, one can easily overstate, as does John Hughes, Rossellini's "critique of spectacle": "Such a critique is essential to the film's central purpose, which might be described as an attempt to discover a correlative in the cinema for what Brechtianism meant to the theater."[9] But Rossellini's self-reflexivity is never as total as Brecht's, and there is no real attempt to destroy illusionistic representation or to place it radically in question; instead, there is a kind of bemused pointing to it, for, at a basic level, Rossellini's commitment to illusionism is firm. In Brecht, as in Godard (who Hughes identifies too closely with Rossellini), spectacle and representation are revealed as constructions, which, like all human knowledge, are mediated and derive always from a particular point of view. Rossellini's ultimate project in the history films, on the other hand, is in some ways the very opposite of this: drama is eliminated, along with plot and emotional identification with the character, precisely to convince the viewer that what he is seeing is "pure," objective, historical truth, uncontaminated by the demands of the code of realism, unmediated and direct. The way this works in Louis XIV has been summed up by Martin Walsh:

Even while purporting to offer an intelligent examination of "spectacle," the film itself remains spectacular to a disturbing degree. The film may, as I have suggested, critique spectacle, yet (as James Leahy pointed out to me) LOUIS XIV remains "a process movie," the thrill of "how's he going to do it" shaping our fascination. Rossellini's work in the production of meaning is masked. Louis' manipulations hold stage-center throughout, and the result is that the viewer is "fixed in position" in his seat—victim of Louis' image, with no possibility for escape.[10]

This is a forceful and cogent critique, but it is by no means clear how a film that demonstrates Louis' fostering of spectacle can itself avoid being spectacular. The film's very power, in fact, seems to derive precisely from its hegemonic gesture, which seems to enlist the camera itself in Louis' project. In any case, Walsh is right to suggest that Rossellini's historical work is finally in the mainstream of "bourgeois art," whose main characteristic, according to many recent theorists, is the way it places the subject-spectator in a certain preestablished relationship with the text, thereby "constructing" this spectator as well. Just as Louis wants


to fix each of his subjects in a specific, controllable place, so, too, Walsh insists, "Rossellini's viewer is firmly chained in his/her situation as viewer and asked to accede uncritically to what Rossellini presents rather than actively engage in the production of meaning."[11]

Unlike in L'età del ferro and La lotta , Rossellini has not been charged with any "distortion" of history in this film, largely because its raw material has been drawn from Erlanger's prestigious biography. It is difficult to estimate the extent of Erlanger's contribution to the film (the credits list him as coscreenwriter), but Pio Baldelli goes too far when, seemingly anxious to belittle even Rossellini's triumphs, he insists that the success of Louis XIV is due entirely to the fact that French television had forced an "iron-clad" screenplay, by Erlanger, on the director. In point of fact, there is evidence that Erlanger's role was even smaller than the screenwriting he is credited with in the film.[12]

Whoever was responsible for the screenplay, it is undoubtedly true that most of the material came from Erlanger's biography, as well as most of the historical analysis. But the film contains a great deal less of the latter than some critics have claimed. For James Roy MacBean, the core of the film is its portrayal of the working relationship that develops between the king, who actually wants to return to a feudal society in which all power emanates from him, and his prime minister, Colbert, the draper's son who becomes the master draftsman of the transformation of the French nation into a modern bourgeois state. This may indeed be a correct analysis of the historical forces at work in seventeenth-century France; in no way, however, can a spectator arrive at this analysis from an untutored viewing of the film itself, as MacBean seems to suggest. The thoughtful spectator will, of course, be thinking about the French revolution that will take place 130 years later, which will demonstrate conclusively that Louis' successors were unable to follow his example,[13] but more historical awareness than this is hard to imagine. Nor does the film do anything to promote such a wider historical view. Naturally, the de-emphasis on character psychology opens up a wider space for the representation of "history" itself, but the space that is opened is that of the contemporary historical moment alone. The events portrayed are seen teleologically in terms of the desired result, the taking of power, but to understand the significance of these events, we must already know what the film itself does not tell us, namely that Louis was the first European sovereign in two hundred years to actually seek total control. Similarly, it is impossible to argue from the evidence of the film alone, as MacBean does, that Rossellini means to show that Louis' reign "is by no means a healthy, fruitful flowering of the French monarchy. Rather, it is simply the last flowering—dazzling in its sickly hues—of a dying plant artificially kept alive in a hothouse."[14] MacBean's larger claim, that this film is Marxist in method if not in name, since it "is exemplary in bringing to the movie screen, for once, the depiction of class struggle as the motor of history," seems vastly overstated. One can perhaps infer an operative notion of class warfare here, but the film's images and words almost exclusively concern the attempt of one aristocrat to wrest power from the others.

In a sense, Mario Verdone is closer to a proper understanding of the film's strategies when he stresses its anecdotal quality, finding a link with Prosper


Mérimée's "The Night of Saint Bartholomew," which he quotes: "I love the anecdote in history and among anecdotes I prefer those where I seem to find a true representation of the customs and characters of an epoch."[15] What neither Mérimée nor Rossellini ever ask, however, is precisely how one verifies this synecdochically produced historical truth. The result is another version of the hermeneutic circle: how does one know if one has a true representation, unless the true essence of an epoch is already known in advance? And where does such essential knowledge come from, if not precisely from prior anecdotes? In an important statement made in 1974, Rossellini insisted:

An historical event is an historical event. It has the same value as a tree or a butterfly or a mushroom. I don't choose the tree. I must get the tree which is there. There is not a choice of the tree. Not at all. I'm totally refusing all sort of aesthetic preconceived ideas, totally, totally, totally. That's the point. When you want to talk about something, you must know the thing. That's the point. When you know the thing well, you can say what is essential. When you don't know it well, you are lost in the middle of a lot of things which are impressive. I try to express the things which I think are essential. I refuse to accomplish any creative act.[16]

What is faulty here, of course, is the assumption that a tree and a historical event have the same ontological status, and that therefore they can be recognized, known, and described in equally unproblematic terms. But Rossellini needs this kind of simplification, again, to portray his search for the essence of an age as a neutral operation. This, in turn, always leads back to a grander transhistorical essentialist view of human beings. As he told the interviewer for Film Culture: "Man has not changed a great deal, it is the conditions that have changed."[17]

Louis XIV was first aired by the French ORTF on October 8, 1966, with an estimated audience of 20 million viewers, Rossellini's most massive audience to that point and ever since. It went on to enjoy a seven-week billing at La Pagode in Paris, three weeks at a second theater, and five weeks at a third.[18] The film was first shown on Italian television the following year, on April 23, 1967, and, as mentioned earlier, was not shown again until the day after Rossellini's death ten years later, in an egregiously delayed act of homage. In its initial Italian broadcast, it was in competition with a popular musical show, which got 7 million viewers; nevertheless, it managed to attract 6.3 million viewers of its own. As Trasatti reports, however, "the index of enjoyment" was low, barely fifty-five. Perhaps the most depressing thing is that this spectacular film about spectacle was shown on French and Italian television before either had been equipped for color broadcasting. Three years later, the film was released in Italy in commercial theaters.

When the film was first shown in the United States, at the New York Film Festival in 1967, it was greeted unfavorably, and thus Rossellini was unable to get the theater or television distribution he had been hoping for. When it was finally released in 1970, however, the same critics who, according to Paul Schrader, had called it a "mounting bore" now labeled it "surely a masterpiece."[19] The


New Yorker, Newsweek , and the New Republic were all favorably disposed toward the picture, and it even outgrossed Truffaut's The Wild Child . Schrader is right to be angry about the initial American reception of Louis XIV . Yet, if recognition came late, at least it finally came. More disturbing is the fact that it was the last that Rossellini would ever receive.


30— La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966)

Preferred Citation: Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.