Directed by Roberto Rossellini1966
In the lavish dining room at Versailles, a royal assembly of nobles and servants gather in chilled anticipation. Clothed with the most extravagant formal wear of the latest styles, they attend one of the day’s most important ceremonies: King Louis XIV’s dinner. Upon entering the room, the nobles evaporate into a hushed crowd. They bow and curtsy with the greatest pomp and circumstance, all in the hopes of garnering recognition by the Sun King. To the assembled aristocracy, a single glance or nod was enough to cement their status as a favored servant to the king. Silently, they watch the king sit alone at a massive table where he begins to eat, picking individual morsels with his right hand, having expressed disdain at the use of forks. With great pomp, individual foods and courses are presented to the king. At last, the main course, a magnificent suckling pig, is brought before the king. But the king’s doctor cuts in, expressing reservations with the presented pork. With a word, the culinary masterpiece is spirited away from the table. Not a word is spoken at the great waste. Such is the privilege and divine right of the king. After the meal, the king retires to his chamber. Servants progress through the palace to announce that the king has begun his “setting.” The day has ended, the Sun King has settled into night.
Such are the scenes that populate Roberto Rossellini’s late masterpiece The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. A slow, pensive, and strangely hypnotizing drama, Rossellini captures the rise of one of Europe’s greatest monarchs and the power that he wielded over his court. It follows Louis as a young man who is thrust into greatness when his adviser, Cardinal Mazarin, dies, leaving him as the successor to the French throne. Rossellini watches with a detached, yet absorbed camera as Louis outwits his power-hungry other and court nobles by centralizing power at his palace at Versailles. Before our very eyes, the meek and timid young man transforms into one of the most powerful rulers in Europe.
Rossellini, who rose to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s as the man who singlehandedly invented the Italian Neo-Realist film movement with such films as Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany, Year Zero (1948), demonstrates his passion for history in this magnificent recreation of court life and culture. The shift in his style and agenda concerning filmmaking may take most by surprise. The entire concept of shooting a film about French royalty seems to be the polar opposite of what Rossellini tried to accomplish with his early career. But the truth is that by the 1960s, Rossellini had grown tired, and even contemptuous, of modern cinema. In 1962, he held a press conference in a Rome bookstore where he announced that the cinema was dead. He declared that, “I intend to retire from film and dedicate myself to television, in order to be able to reexamine everything from the beginning in full liberty, in order to rerun mankind’s path in search of truth.”
And so Rossellini started a second career of historical dramas for television. Between 1962 and 1977, he made a massive 42 historical films. These films focused frequently on major historical figures, such as the Apostles, philosophers, and great leaders. Perhaps due to the disorienting disconnect with his earlier, more popular career as a Neorealist, this body of work has been largely neglected and forgotten. But indeed, it represents one of the most fruitful eras in one of the cinema’s greatest minds. In addition to being superior films in their own right, they reflected Rossellini’s new mission statement of educating the masses through cinema. Therefore, they were painstakingly created to be as historically accurate as possible. Many of these films seem to transcend their origin as costumed dramas and become literal windows into the past. Of these films, The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is one of the greatest and most fascinating.
True to Rossellini’s Neorealist roots, the star of his film was not played by a professional actor, but instead an office clerk named Jean-Marie Patte. Having never acted in front of a camera before, Patte was terrified throughout filming, so much so that he was never able to learn his lines and had to have them held up on boards for him to read. The result was a strange effect where Patte never actually looks at his fellow actors during conversations since he was too busy looking at his lines. As such, Louis maintains an air of perpetual detachment from the reality of court life and the political machinations that secured his throne. Rossellini seizes upon this by portraying Louis as a man so certain in his pursuit of power that he does not even have to try, feeling confident in his divine right to rule.
Many might question Rossellini’s decision to focus solely on Louis’s life at Versailles. After all, is this not the man responsible for France’s position as the leading European power throughout his reign? What of his leadership through three major European wars? What of his financial reforms that turned the nearly bankrupt nation into one of the world’s wealthiest? They are either briefly touched upon or never mentioned. What is of more importance to Rossellini is how Louis maintained an iron fist over the French aristocracy by forcing them to live at Versailles and clamor for his attention and approval. For a noble living at Versailles, the only way to maintain their pensions and privileges was to wait on Louis. As such, men who had previously lorded over massive domains of the French countryside found themselves cleaning the king’s chamber pot and helping him dress in the morning. The true genius to this system of aristocratic servitude was that they were so absorbed with court life, the latest styles, and waiting on the king that they had no time to wage war with each other and possibly plot resistance to royal authority. The result was that Louis centralized power on himself, allowing his reforms to take greater effect since they were not questioned by every local member of the aristocracy. Such is the source of Louis’ famous maxim, “L'État, c'est moi.” In English, it literally translates to, “I am the state.”
And so, Rossellini recreates French court life and its traditions in great detail because they helped define Louis’ rule. And what a life it was! Rossellini shot his film on location at Versailles. So when we witness a recreation of French court life, we get a glimpse into real history. And really, what else is more befitting of the monarch who redefined Europe? The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is more than just a costumed drama; it is history come to life. Just as Rossellini captured Europe at its lowest in the wake of World War Two, he captured Europe at its height with a film that revels in ceremonies and rituals. As a lover of history, I sometimes dream of attending great historical events. For me, it isn’t enough to merely read about them, I have an aching desire to witness them. Thankfully I have Rossellini. His films are quite possibly the best doors into history that the cinema has ever provided us. What a waste it would be to not cherish them as the masterpieces that they truly are.