As it happened, I found it fascinating. French history isn't one of my specialties, so it was a rewarding challenge to be immersed in the 17th century without benefit of narration. The situation establishes itself soon enough. The prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin (like Rossellini an Italian in service to France), is dying. The leading nobles and courtiers are maneuvering for position, literally in the sense of proximity to the dying man and politically in order to exploit an expected power vacuum. As doctors ponder whether to keep bleeding the poor cardinal, no one really takes the King of France seriously. Louis XIV is considered a callow young man more interested in courting mistresses than in court politics. As Mazarin is considered the power behind the throne now, so Superintendent Fouquet expects to take over once the cardinal dies. While most of the nobles are out for personal gain, Mazarin and his right-hand man Colbert serve the national interest. They encourage Louis to assert himself and bring the nobles to heel, but the king is cautious. Mazarin wants to bequeath him his massive personal fortune to help make the monarchy independently wealthy, but Louis refuses, thinking it will arouse suspicions. He has his own ideas, however.
There's an artful artlessness in Rossellini's telling of this story. Every shot is very carefully composed and the cinematography is gorgeous, but the director does little to dramatize his scenes in the manner we expect from period pictures. He throws in occasional bits of exposition to explain things like why Louis doesn't go into Mazarin's room after the cardinal dies, and he has the main characters state their motives rather baldly. But like Jack Webb he strives to minimize the theatricality of the drama. His Louis is a non-actor who usually reads his lines off cue cards, giving his utterances an unaffected quality that passes for naturalism. Characters don't emote in this film, allowing you to suspend disbelief and imagine yourself back in time among real people.
While most scenes are filmed straight ahead, Rossellini adopts the olympian perspective of the king watching from a window for the crucial arrest of Fouquet, shown here discovering his doom.
Despite the illusion, Louis XIV is a carefully crafted story. Rossellini establishes a visual parallel early, linking Mazarin's deathbed scenes with Louis's marriage-bed scenes and contrasting the dying minister and the rising monarch. The film's big outdoor scene, a deer hunt during which Louis takes his mistress into the woods for a quickie, is a metaphor for the main storyline. By continuing to play the self-indulgent wastrel after Mazarin's death, Louis is throwing Fouquet and other power players off his scent just as a deer tries to throw hunting dogs off its scent by swimming across a stream.
Rossellini's most important directorial decisions are matters of pace. He films in long takes and lets scenes breathe. The deliberate pace helps perpetuate the illusion of living in the past, and it fits the ceremonial pace of court life. It lets you see how important physical proximity to power is to the nobles, whether they attend the king when he wakes up in the morning or compete to be the first to view Mazarin's corpse. He's setting up a big payoff, and it comes in a scene that plays out to almost oppressive length -- on purpose. Louis's triumph is represented in a stunning scene in which the nobles are obliged to stand about watching the king eat a meal of more than a dozen courses -- without a fork, mind you. He knows how to use one, we're told, but he doesn't like to and he doesn't like others showing off. Course after course is conveyed from the kitchen in elaborate processions and put into the hands of courtiers for whom it's a mighty honor to serve the monarch this way. Most viewers have probably been rooting for Louis up to this point, but now you have to question whether he's taken things too far. The "Sun King" becomes a despot here, and the scene is sure to have a dystopian quality for American viewers, particularly those of a certain ideological bent who probably imagine such scenes playing out in the White House today. Anyway, here's some of the scene, as uploaded to YouTube by hvolsvellir
To be honest, the film's stately pace and dry feeling aren't going to work for everyone. It'll help if you're interested in history, though I can't vouch for the accuracy of Rossellini's account or the fairness of his emphasis. But if you love film for the sake of pure imagery I can tell you that, at the least, this film's a visual feast. Made for TV it may have been but it's gorgeous to look at, and the costumes take it to another level altogether. Louis XIV is a mesmerizing trip in a cinematic time machine that makes me look forward to future travels with the director.