The Taking of Power by Louis XIV
Directed by Roberto Rossellini
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 94 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: January 13, 2009
Review Date: December 29, 2008
How ironic that the director Roberto Rossellini has chosen to illuminate the early years of the flamboyant Sun King Louis XIV of France in such a quiet, unassuming way! Watching The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, a biographical examination into the manners and mores of the seventeenth century French court, the viewer might likely wonder if the monarch’s reputation far outweighs the actual facts of his monarchy. One thing is clear, however. Rossellini’s subdued approach here influenced greatly the series of biographical television films he was destined to be working on for the next decade of his life.
After the death of the real power behind the French throne, his prime minister Cardinal Mazarin (Silvagni), French King Louis XIV (Jean-Marie Patte) decides that he will begin ruling his country for real and devises a scheme to rid himself of the next-in-line for the prime minister’s job, the thieving Fouquet (Pierre Barrat). Both Mazarin and Fouquet had used their years in power to rob mightily from the country’s treasury amassing fortunes worth many millions of francs while the licentious king ignored matters of state to enjoy more carnal pleasures. Now, the king wishes to correct the error of his ways and rule his country himself keeping an eye on the treasury and bringing back a sense of power and importance to France that his years of neglect had caused it to lose.
Roberto Rossellini is clearly uninterested in the melodrama of the coup to oust Fouquet, and his downfall couldn’t be staged with less drama or tension, despite the fact that Fouquet never fears the king‘s intentions because of his reputation as a wastrel; he’s certain the king will soon tire of ruling and leave the running of the country to others. However, in not wanting to play up the emotions of the situation, Rossellini allows the film to get stagnant occasionally. This isn’t helped by some less than ideal casting either, though the director certainly does allow the camera to drink in the splendors of the new court under Louis once he makes changes in the palace and the official attire he wishes to see adopted by the court. From then on, the movie, while still glacially paced, takes on a majesty fully befitting the radiant monarch as the viewer begins to get a clear idea of the enormous wealth and privilege that were at the beckon call of the head of the land. Scenes on the building up of Versailles and a very lengthy set piece showing the preparation and consumption of a fourteen course meal by the king while the entire court looks on in silence are daring indeed if the audience might tend to get restless, but their opulence inevitably mesmerizes.
The film’s biggest problem, though, isn’t in the pacing or the lack of a direct dramatic through-line. No, Rossellini has cast a phenomenally uncharismatic actor as the Sun King based only on his striking resemblance to paintings of the king. Jean-Marie Patte was a novice, and his inexperience is glaring as he hesitatingly walks on eggshells throughout the film, never showing any emotion in his face or voice and obviously reading lines off cue cards being held off camera. (This is confirmed in the booklet essay and bonus featurettes though I hadn’t read the booklet or watched the bonuses before I watched the movie; it’s patently obvious and a tremendous letdown that a film role this important would be entrusted to someone so inexperienced and inept.) Silvagni’s Cardinal Mazarin, Katharina Renn’s Anne d’Autriche, and Pierre Barrat’s Fouquet make the most of their moments in the spotlight always stealing focus from the film’s nondescript star.
The film’s 1.33:1 original aspect ratio is faithfully delivered here in a very pleasing transfer. (Criterion has not windowboxed the image.) Color is solidly delivered, and sharpness is well above average, the image featuring natural film grain which is very agreeable. There are a few minor dust specks and small scratches midway through the film, but most of it is clean and well presented. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack in the original French is a standard audio mono mix of the era. There is some intermittent hiss and some occasional scratching on the soundtrack, and sometimes the levels of the music waver disconcertingly, but this isn’t a major problem.
“Taking Power” is film author Tag Gallagher’s effusive critique of the movie complete with some unconvincingly brought forward arguments justifying the casting of Jean-Marie Patte. Afterwards, he begins to examine the entire oeuvre of Rossellini with clips from Stromboli, The Miracle, Europe ‘51, Stephan, and Saint Paul, among others. It lasts 24 ¾ minutes.
Rossellini’s son Renzo Rossellini offers a brief 5 ¼-minute interview in which he admitted his father’s real enthusiasm for television as a means of bringing information to the masses and also reveals that he, and not his father, directed the famous climactic eating scene that is one of the cornerstones of the movie.
Artistic adviser Jean-Dominique de La Rochefoucauld and script supervisor Michelle Podroznik participated in a 2004 interview about the making of the movie and the unusual, instinctive technique the director brought to the production of his films. This nonanamorphic letterboxed featurette runs 14 minutes.
The enclosed 13-page booklet contains a couple of beautiful color movie stills and a glowing essay on Rossellini and his movie by film professor Colin MacCabe.
The Taking of Power by Louis XIV isn’t a great film, but it features enough really fine touches to make it a recommended disc, especially for fans of the great director.