Albert Serra’s recent La Mort de Louis XIV (The Death of Louis XIV, 2016), starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as the ailing king, has been rightly hailed a masterpiece.1 Its central preoccupation with aging and/or dying historical figures of power correlates it with other recent films, and interrogates the appeal and relevance of such narratives. In doing so, it unveils what seems to be at the heart of these mesmerising works, and the object – or subject – of fascination lurking behind them.

With an oeuvre described somewhat aptly as “radically stripped-down [and] voluptuously shaggy,”2 the buoyant and brazenly outspoken Serra could hardly be criticised for being falsely modest, keen as he is on basking in the light of his own talent. Yet he is not shy at naming a couple of cinematic models3: on the one hand, Andy Warhol and his knack for minimalist experiments protracted in time, that are at one and the same time brilliant works of conceptual art and queer provocation; on the other hand, Luis Buñuel and his outrageous sense of humour and affinity for the absurd, a legacy Serra has channelled not only in his films, but also in real life, calling himself publically, indeed, the greatest Spanish director since… Buñuel.4 It comes as no surprise that with such statements, to which one may add unorthodox stunts at art biennials and festivals,5Serra may not be universally liked, despite the praise his films have received. This is indeed a win-win situation for him, a counterweight to the double-binds and complexes of serving two masters that so many art-filmmakers find themselves confronted with in our rather morbid culture industry. Or is it? As a cynic, Serra probably cares very little about the opinions the art-film world and its critics may formulate about his unorthodox stances, and as a strategist of the art (film) world, he positions himself nicely in the niche of the pampered and revered enfant terrible. In this, he is not unlike a third, less often mentioned model, namely Alexander Sokurov.

In September 2013, Serra came to Brussels with his producer and co-screenwriter Thierry Lounas (mostly known for his activities in publishing and festival organising) to at long last meet the Russian director, fellow “transcendental minimalist” (6) and contrarian. During this encounter, the Catalan chiefly wanted to elicit comments from Sokurov about the psychology of the dictator-figures – Hitler, Lenin, Hirohito – depicted in his tetralogy of power (which consists of the films Moloch [1999], Telets [Taurus, 2000], Solntse [The Sun, 2005] and Faust [2011]),6 and his take on power in general.7

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

Moloch (Sokurov, 1999)

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

Taurus (Sokurov, 2000)

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

The Sun (Sokurov, 2005)

Just three years later, Serra released his Death of Louis XIV. While clearly indebted to Roberto Rossellini’s La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, 1966), and sharing features with Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), the film is nonetheless mostly informed by Sokurov’s tetralogy. As Serra’s film represents a historical figure of power in a secluded block of time and space, it almost functions as a fifth episode in the Russian director’s cycle. In both Sokurov’s tetralogy and Serra’s unofficial sequel, the details (costumes and set design) are highly realistic, and serious research has gone toward documenting the facts portrayed (famous sources are quoted in the dialogues, etc.). But both directors also take poetic license in creating a universe of their own, giving us at once a compelling historiographic account, a pure work of auteurist vision, and a playful historical recreation, with touches of bizarre humour and an ineffable absurdist spirit interspersed throughout. Sokurov and Serra are ultimately very different when it comes to the tonality of their films: Sokurov’s cinema is more sorrowful, elegiac and compassionate than Serra’s. And yet the latter fills his latest film with apparently deliberate Sokurovian quotations:

– In terms of mise en scène, the films share almost immobile painterly compositions, a trademark of Sokurov. Most memorably, the Russian filmmaker had recreated Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscapes in Mat’ i Syn (Mother and Son, 1997). Serra, for his part, channels the Dutch school and particularly Rembrandt in Louis XIV.

– Replicating another feature of most of Sokurov’s films, Serra depicts scores of bystanders (courtesans, servants, doctors, etc.) watching as the central figure becomes an object of morbid fascination and angst rather than a protagonist with any real agency. This device yields at once a rich and layered discourse on voyeurism, performativity and basic human scopic impulses – allegorising the act of watching the film – and a highly personal poetics of space, articulated and disarticulated at one and the same time, as it were, through the multiple gazes of apparently secondary or insignificant characters.

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

Louis XIV (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his dogs: “Vous êtes leur maître, Sire.” (The Death of Louis XIV, Serra, 2016).

– Both directors also have a specific interest in animals and the grotesque. In their work with non-professional and professional actors alike, they often elicit animal-like behaviour. Think of Louis, early on in Serra’s film, as he imitates the panting of his Barzoi greyhounds, or Sokurov’s Hirohito, his mouth twitching like that of the fish he liked to study as an amateur ichthyologist. The grotesque is correlated primarily here with the way in which the elderly become child- or even infant-like, helpless and unable to perform the simplest task (having to be fed, bathed and carried around, etc.). This, in both Sokurov and Serra, underlines the paradox of absolute power and its regressive potential: a figure of “absolute” power reduced to powerlessness and impotence is bound to be a grotesque entity (and we will see below how this correlates, too, with a somewhat grotesque representation of the time they evolve in).

– An even more direct quote, the autopsy scene that concludes Louis XIV is very reminiscent of the opening scene of Faust, particularly in the unreal, rubbery look and texture of the internal organs removed from the corpses, both “autopsies” being performed with the professed goal of advancing science, although they also serve the purpose of some darkly (homo)erotic and morbidly narcissistic reassurance on the part of those undertaking the examination (the French doctors and Faust respectively).

– Last but not least, Serra pays homage to Sokurov’s noted fixation with – dead or alive – male feet,8 repeatedly showing the King’s left foot, as it slowly rots under the effect of gangrene.

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

Les pieds royaux (The Death of Louis XIV, Serra, 2016).

These obvious topical markers aside, two (intertwined) aspects seem to merit particular attention, and will be developed at greater length below: on the one hand, both Serra and Sokurov have devised a mode of historical representation which re-contextualises the leader-figures outside specifically “historical” moments (say, great battles or political speeches—i.e. time and dates as referents). In this, their films are highly similar;

on the other hand, and all the while featuring “uneventful” events, their films offer an experience to us the viewers, both having to do with a perception of durée and phenomenological time, but yielding a different affect nonetheless.

L’emploi du temps

To be sure, we can draw outright parallels between the films’ representation of a “mundane” time as opposed to the great feats and misdeeds of these men of power, as recorded in history textbooks. This “uneventful” time, a time of inaction, is still worthy of attention insofar as it involves figures who, elsewhere, and at a different moment, were influencing the fates of millions.9 It is what Fredric Jameson calls “the time of l’emploi du temps” in Sokurov, “of the routine and the schedule, the hours of the day.”10 Drawing upon the theories of Georg Lukács, Jameson elucidates the way in which Sokurov creates a third regime of historical representation, between the historical novel and the historic drama. Here, the historical figures are shown as mostly inactive, or idling about; worse still, they are feeble, hapless. Both Sokurov and Serra highlight the absurdly gaping chasm between the concept of absolute power and the impotence of the protagonist. In an article on Sokurov’s Moloch and Taurus, Mikhail Iampolski airs a similar idea, arguing that the interest of these films consists in showing the leaders outside of their kairos, i.e., outside of the determining moment, which they were able to seize, and which, in turn, turned them into historical figures.11 Cast outside of their moment, they can be viewed as a paradoxical mix of the human and the grotesque, at once less than human and all too human, underwhelming in what they are, and overwhelming in what they are supposed to stand for (surely the best example would be the “divine” Hirohito in Sokurov’s The Sun). Serra offers a variation of this motif in Louis XIV, thereby enriching his already compelling experiments with another historical figure – Casanova – in Història de la meva mort (Story of My Death, 2013). In the latter film, the ageing Italian seducer is shown defecating as he philosophises, already quite close to the rambling Hitler and Lenin shown in their underwear in Sokurov. As has been said of Serra’s film: “Despite having historical settings, the domain of costume dramas and re-creation, none [of these films] are of history: each moment seems utterly present, its tender, awkward humanity telling more than so much talk, action and money spent in the vast majority of films.”12 More precisely, this is history, but of a different, new kind, or rather of a kind that was calling for some form of artistic hewing out, or excavation.

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

Hitler in his underwear, berating Eva Braun (Moloch, Sokurov, 1999).

Pure presence and pure time in Serra

We may now ask ourselves why it is (and how it is) that such ponderous and slow films about mundane events appeal to us, beyond their beautiful cinematography and original filmmaking techniques, and beyond the morbid fascination with dying and the taboo attached to it? The answer, I contend, indeed has to do with the phenomenology of this slow yet dense time, but also with the virtual images that such contemplation ends up summoning.

In an interview for Sight and Sound given at the time of Story of My Death’s release, Serra spoke very clearly of some of the goals of his cinema:

The magic of film, the magic of my work, is not what you see. […] what’s happening now… It’s not seen. It’s transparent. Maybe it will appear and say something in the final images. […] This is the essence of the first moment I decided to be a filmmaker. I was at a party when I was 24, it was a beautiful party, but it was a normal party, some drinks in the summer, some people from the countryside, some young people. But that moment created some kind of magic. Three minutes or four minutes of magic that was physical and spiritual, people making jokes and moving, a harmony. I said “What a beautiful thing! Maybe life should always be filled with this magic.”13

There are two main ways in which this passage illuminates my argument. Firstly, Serra’s interest in capturing a specific moment (apparently insignificant, but indeed fundamental), is an adaptation of sorts, for 21st century cinema, of the famous epiphanies of modernist literature (think of Woolf, Forster, and their Latin equivalents – Carpentier, Marquez, etc.). This is a perennial device, which in Story of My Death clearly happens towards the end of the film, during a scene in which young people are revelling in an idyllic landscape, at sunset. The latter is indeed a fetching and overarching metaphor repeated in The Death of Louis XIV. The film opens at dusk, as the tired Roi-Soleil, in a wheelchair, bathed in magic hour’s declining and soft light, gazes vaguely in the distance, probably contemplating, perhaps unconsciously yet, his own accomplishments and passing. The rest of the film delivers this fascinatingly slow, and yet riveting twilight, indiscernibly poised between past and present, as the King slowly dies.

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

“Allez, poussez!”, or, the Roi-Soleil at dusk (The Death of Louis XIV, Serra, 2016).

Secondly, Serra posits himself clearly as a filmmaker of presence: he gives an immediacy to the bodies of characters and their surrounding which are far more important than the narrative. A late modernist no doubt, the Catalan delivers an updated version of Gilles Deleuze’s time-image, wherein pure visual and sonic situations (“opsigns” and “sonsigns”) disrupt a traditional causal, “sensori-motor” schema and sequence of the action-image. Becoming secondary, even as it remains linear on paper, the narrative becomes an epic of presence and photogénie.14 Even as they are subjected to a quasi-narcotic rhythm of reverie, idleness or half-consciousness, the characters retain this deep, dense and immediate presence, which is at once actual and virtual. It is a pure presence that denotes pure time itself. And so, beyond their non-sequiturs, repetitions, strange ellipses and subtle disconnects between sound and image, the films convey a new experience of time through the immanent affect of physical presence – provided that the viewers lend themselves to it.15 This is where Serra has outdone even Sokurov. The Death of Louis XIV proposes one of the most successful experiments with the time-image, just as the film might be interpreted as cinema’s obituary.16

The Death of Cinema?

Reading these narratives of death and decay by Sokurov and Serra as commenting upon the “death of cinema” is as seductive as it is glib: indeed, how do we reconcile the brilliant output of these filmmakers with the idea of a death of cinema – a transitional crisis due to technological development, the exhaustion of mainstream entertainment in the face of the current popularity of TV shows, to be sure… but its death? Furthermore, such reflection to be found in a work of art, taking itself as the object of melancholy and ruminating over (its own) finitude, is nothing new: we have known it since Hegel at least, and witnessed it, as Deleuze points out, in cinema already (Wenders being a case in point). And it never was the marker of the end of the medium, or of history, or of the world. Rather, we should note that the melancholy found in these death-ridden texts indicates a crisis, and interrogates the profound socio-economic and geopolitical changes happening at present in light of the relevance and resonance of these daring cinematic experiments, and their appeal to a significant number of viewers. As such, we understand that the motifs of the films (decay, death) are not so much a meta-commentary on the end of cinema, but rather the symptoms of a new order, era, or perhaps global regime. Deleuze already attributed the emergence of the time-image to the great cataclysms that shook the world with World War II, the Holocaust, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and their various consequences and epiphenomena. So one should be alert to, in this latest instantiation of the time-image, early signs of events of possibly similar magnitude, if more insidious. In other words, these new treatments of cinematic temporality which auteurs of the ilk of Sokurov and Serra bring to us are the consequences, or the symptoms, of a deep social, philosophical, technological change in humanity.

The Death of Louis XIV : an unassumingly hypnotic temporal maze

The pure presence identified in Serra’s work – as well as, following Deleuze, the opsigns and sonsigns they instantiate – are merely the reflections of a greater whole, namely the crystal-image. Briefly put, for the French philosopher, crystal-images are emancipated from movement and emerge from some void, connecting the actual and the virtual, past and present, real and imaginary.17 In doing so, they blur the lines between these elements to a point of indeterminacy (which is also the “seed” [germe] of the crystal), giving to the films and images a four-dimensional, maze-like depth, where the viewer’s mind is invited to unexpected meanderings and illuminations, while also delivering an image of pure time, wherein past and present coalesce.

The script of The Death of Louis XIV progresses in a linear fashion, faithful to the accounts of the King’s last month, from his sudden exhaustion in early August, which would force him to relinquish most of his royal duties, to the pronouncement of his death on September 1, 1715. Yet the crystalline structure of the film is so ingenious that we lose track of this linear trajectory. Many scenes can be interpreted – diegetically a false assumption, but philosophically an added value to experiencing the film – as flash-backs or flash-forwards whose boundaries are all but unclear. Indeed, having looked very much dead, the King reappears seeming more energetic, momentarily revived, mostly on account of his staging of his own death: the last rites, the burning of important documents, instructing his heir – in a mix of grandeur and humility – on those mistakes that are not to be repeated. And yet the king is dying, as the gangrene irreversibly and inexorably spreading over his leg reminds us. The infected limb eventually turns entirely to a charred black, although without any bloating or other alteration, as though the growing blotches of some nefarious ideology progressively took hold of an entire geopolitical map, albeit without altering its contours. And so we are both in the (actual) linear time of death and decay, and outside of it (in another, virtual temporality). We are at one and the same time next to the king’s deathbed, witness to the dull intimacy of the emploi du temps, and at a far remove, very high up indeed, understanding with increasing precision what it is that the film has to tell us beyond its depiction of death’s victorious battle against life – or vice versa.

Léaud’s masterful incarnation of the king is to be praised here,18 but so is Serra’s uncanny ability to generate movement and dynamism with an all but static mise en scène: this is, truly, the movement of the mind that we accomplish when looking at the great works of the Dutch school the director recreates here. It is well known that Serra works with three digital cameras running simultaneously, which allows him to condense the duration of the shoot dramatically (Louis was shot in a little over a fortnight), but also enables his innovative experiments with cinematic time. Since the cameras are mostly static, the only choice for the director-editor, in the vast majority of scenes, is to go back and forth between these three angles. And in order to avoid the uninspired binary shot/reverse-shot aesthetic, the editing slowly and deliberately moves between shots of Louis from three different angles and sides of his deathbed – to his left, to his right, and frontally ­– like a strange, whimsical clockwork structure, seeming to move forward one moment, and backward the next. An ebb-and-flow motion is thus progressively felt, hypnotising us, imperceptibly at first, but to maximum effect nonetheless. To this, Serra also adds a dynamic, slow dance-like interplay between seriousness/tragedy/death and humour/comedy/life, often by means of contrast. The charlatan Le Brun (played to wonderful comic effect by Vicenç Altaió, who had also starred as Casanova in The Story of My Death) seems straight out of a tale by Sade, opposite Louis’ Court physician Guy-Crescent Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao) who looks nothing like the historical representations of the man (born in 1638, the same year as the King), but rather more like your local butcher or parking garage watchman. The doctors from Paris too, in terms of typage, have the faces of peasants or petty shopkeepers, while, conversely, Louis’ faithful valet Blouin (played by Marc Susini), bears a resemblance to Descartes, and seems more learned and insightful than the doctors, even as it is he who, out of desperation, calls for the witchdoctor lore of Le Brun.19

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

The charlatan Le Brun (Vicenç Altaió)

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

Doctor Fagon (Patrick d’Assumçao)

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

A picture of the real Guy-Crescent Fagon

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

Blouin, the Valet de chambre (Marc Susini)

Sokurov’s and Serra’s time crystals

While numerous elements connect Sokurov’s and Serra’s takes on historical time, the same cannot be said of the “crystalline” regime of their cinema. Sokurov has always willed himself to be a master of flatness in cinema. In this, he is the opposite of his friend Andrey Tarkovsky, who designed a cinema of depth and volume, and who famously saw matter as a condensation of time to be sculpted. Sokurov’s image has something of the crystal, perhaps, but it is a flat crystal, a magnifying and distorting lens composed of multiple thin layers tightly folded onto each other, wherein time and space are condensed to the point where they become grotesquely misshapen. Although Serra does include a short scene where an eyeball is distorted and made anamorphic through a magnifying lens in Louis XIV (an image reminiscent of a shot in Moloch, but also a nod to Buñuel), his treatment of the time-crystal yields different results. Just as it tackles the agony of an increasingly motionless body in a secluded space, the film sends our minds spinning on adventures in endless spaces. Surely in this tale of decline and isolation, in a time of retrospection and summation, we find many avenues for the mind to wander and escape, nostalgically or otherwise. In this, the film is very similar to Haneke’s Amour,20 where the nexus formed by Riva/Trintignant sends us down an intertextual rabbit hole in which we see summoned, among others, Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet (two key figures of the time-image in Deleuze). Haneke draws upon Trintignant’s voice recounting anecdotes, sending us back to his similarly laconic narrations in Un homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman, Claude Lelouch, 1966), Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, Eric Rohmer 1969) or Un héros très discret (A Self-Made Hero, Jacques Audiard, 1996). Other devices to summon meanderings of the mind through an “actualised” past include old pictures in an album of young Riva in her first communion dress and a middle-aged Trintignant, paintings of landscapes in the couple’s apartment, and of course classical music. Léaud summons his own rich network of references, from Antoine Doinel to Truffaut and Godard and even Olivier Assayas.

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

A magnifying glass in The Death of Louis XIV.

Albert Serra Alexander Sokurov

The same object in Moloch.

One could argue that, in a revealing manner, Haneke has elected to reach for the “caviar left”, left bank side of the New Wave, while Serra, for the more upstart, petit bourgeois, right bank side. Different though the two films may be in this sense both are paradoxically endowed with the same élan vital, and their time-crystals are uncannily similar. And so, perverse though its morbid humour and ironic its jab at the concept of power, the film is paradoxically endowed with a restless energy, resulting from the interplay between the work’s artistry and our response to it, an élan vital of remarkable potency considering the morbid and depressing depictions on the screen. We may attempt to explain this—beyond the simple fact that the film is a great work of art in and of itself—in terms of the dynamic interplay of life and death its crystalline structure contains. As Deleuze writes of Jean Renoir: “the crystal only holds death, but life must come out of it”.21 Serra’s film is shaped like a funnel-shaped sinusoid: a structure which, from an angle, seems to close down on itself, as death draws nearer and nearer. And yet, by virtue of the crystalline walls of its hollow structure, it keeps on lavishly feeding the mind with thoughts and images—the history of cinema and Western art summoned in our mind’s eye. In his elucidation of the time-crystal, Deleuze asked the question: “Do the dead belong to us, or do we belong to the dead? And do we love them against the living, or for and with life?”22 It is in the zone of indiscernibility raised by this question, between hope and despair and resignation, between aristocratic decorum and base instincts, between histrionics and lucidity, between our commiseration and desire to alleviate a person’s suffering, and the morbid fascination with watching death at work from a safe distance, that, watching these films, we find the “seed” or entry point of Serra’s time-crystal.

Power, life and death and the transhuman ideal

As I hinted at earlier, it would be wrong to correlate the crystalline imagery of Serra solely to the idea of death and passing (such as with Visconti, whose crystal, for Deleuze, is characterised by decline and decomposition, or the idea that things always arrive “too late”). Tightly knitting together an actual present with a virtual (and general, only vaguely marked)23 past, combining the charisma and presence of the actors’ bodies, Serra’s crystals employ their hollowness to generate refractions and paradoxical echoes, which show one term and evoke its opposite at the same time. Hence, as the film shows death, agony, and bankruptcy, it imparts this rush of élan vital. Most importantly, it has something resonant to tell us on the political level, far more than its pronounced aesthetic refinement, and blend of cynicism and perversion, might indicate. The film reveals and opens up onto a surprisingly vivid clash of philosophies: humanism versus pragmatism, rational versus irrational thinking (one coming dangerously close to the other), mostly in the face of science’s and medicine’s flawed ideals. As we know, the transhuman ideal of immortality and the abolition of disease and old age (an “ideal” shared of course by capitalism) are increasingly becoming a reality – to the hyper wealthy, at least – even as Serra himself derides such a hypothesis as nonsense.24 Yet it is not innocent that major films addressing human agony with such strength should come out just as the debates on euthanasia, eugenics and human enhancement (through robotics, stem cells, etc.) are no longer relegated to legal battles and science-fiction books, but become a currency of mainstream knowledge.

Just as we enter the fraught age of transhumanism, we witness what the movement’s “light” side professes to eradicate: old age, suffering, disease, and the way in which 18th century doctors took upon themselves the dialectics of progress have led to the absurd helplessness of palliative care today. Louis XIV ends on a shot of doctor Fagon, who, with a look to the camera after having (un)ceremoniously cut open the body of the king, not so apologetically concludes: “Gentlemen, we’ll do better next time.”25 The line is a strange nod to the vagaries of research, and a condemnation of the vainglory of science and the dialectics of progress. The latter having led today to a forking path, between the paradoxes and pitfalls of progress and its increasing divorce from humanism. As La mort de Louis XIV ends in a curious mix of ironic despondence and élan vital, we may ask ourselves what political, economic and technological monster has yielded such an intriguingly paradoxical cinematic unconscious.26

The concept of the figure of power behind the figure of power

This is where we return to Sokurov. While the first three films of his tetralogy may represent figures of power, they are captured in their sheer powerlessness: dying, demented or haplessly childlike, just as Amour is essentially a film about impotence. Serra does the exact same thing with his Louis XIV, including by hinting at the King’s legendary sexual appetite, now relegated to an old man’s lewd curiosity. Are these films, then, to be taken merely as a symbolic punishment of the powerful turned inept, as Serra has suggested? Such petty and immature revenge alone could never foster such profound oeuvres. Should we view them as studies of a time of decline, reflecting on the decline of Western civilization? Such a reading, much as the “death of cinema” one, would be too glib. The important question to ask ourselves is why do Sokurov and Serra seem to share this fascination with power, all the while dedicating entire films to the madness or decay of the figures of power they portray? To be sure, these films show us that power and vitality cannot be separated from their opposites – impotence and death – while at the same time, a deep preoccupation with the latter seems to do little to undo their fascination with it. It is as though the moribund character of established figures of power were somehow the source of their power – but is this a power to defy death, even when it is most present or integral, or rather one that somehow can act in a new way, precisely because it presents itself as impotent?

In other words, all this could be a kind of ruse or double-bind, in which power is only free to exercise itself when it insists that it is something other than power, operating as an invisible and sprawling network. But this power, as these films so clearly emphasise, has also to do with a physical body, these aging and dying figures summoning a very much embodied, vigorous, potent one. A ruthless figure, perhaps (although constantly avoiding representing itself as such), but also “absolute” in its pure presence, defying time (through a very prolonged stay in power, especially when compared to 20th century Western liberal democracies fixed political terms) and perhaps, even, the concept of its own undoing and death. And it is just such an authoritarian, invincible “leader” who declaims the very impotence of the old conception of the State, as connected to these dying “kings,” which seems to fascinate – consciously or subconsciously – Sokurov and Serra, beyond their general interest in the concept of power. We need not look very far for the contemporary embodiment of this powerful entity. It is, of course, Vladimir Putin – the concept, rather than the man himself. Since taking over a derelict Russian Federation from Boris Yeltsin, Putin has occupied a quasi-messianic place in the Russian subconscious, an updated version of the providential (if iniquitous) leader that is the recipient of all (and often mutually contradictory) fantasies. And it speaks volumes about Putin-as-concept’s grasp on the global subconscious that he should have inspired two men of as diverse intelligence and artistic sensitivity (furthermore, two men who are so different psychologically) as Sokurov and Serra. In one case, we see this influence turning a remarkably sensitive late Soviet auteur into a man celebrating Russia’s fantasised imperial grandeur in the pomp of Russkii Kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002). Later, Putin funded Sokurov’s long-unattainable dream of Faust, which would then reap the main prize at the Venice festival, to everyone’s astonishment. Although Sokurov pretended Putin did not interest him, and retained a defiant pose toward some of his policies in his home city of Saint Petersburg (raising his voice, most memorably, against the destruction of the city’s architectural landmarks in favour of hideous nouveau riche buildings), he has covertly been a supporter of Russian foreign policy, most aggravatingly in the case of Syria. In the case of Serra, the admiration for Putin is certainly much more oblique, yet it may actually run deeper. Like many disgruntled European intellectuals with an anarchist leaning, Serra, an adept of outrageously macho postures and brazen statements, aims to represent, in his own words, “the bankruptcy of the State” and denounce the failures of the European Union in his film about the dying king.27 Even as he is one of Europe’s hottest art film currencies, the Catalan has been vocal in holding in contempt the corrupt or inept EU funding system, art world and the culture industry, and all the vagaries of uncompromising art filmmaking to be encountered therein, which he in turn must endure. Unwittingly perhaps, Serra echoes the agenda of many Far-right and anti-EU political parties which are currently enjoying a boom in Europe, while evidence piles up that they are being helped or outright monitored by the hand of the Kremlin.

Sokurov is the insider, who, in the Russian messianic tradition he has always upheld, sees and hopes for the salvation of Europe and its cultural legacy as necessarily coming through Russia. And since it cannot be the old Russia of Pushkin and Tolstoy, then it may as well be Putin’s Russia, this curious blend of Czarist imperialism, Orthodox church, Panslavism and KGB methods. Serra is an outsider, who understandably admires, against the opacity and mediocre nepotism of European bureaucracy and film production, the idea of a man who seems to single-handedly run the show: Putin as the grand image-maker, the preternaturally intelligent and cunning master who reaches his goal even as he is dealt a very poor geopolitical hand. In other words, Putin is the analogon to Serra’s dream of the independent filmmaker creating a truly independent masterpiece, in total directorial and artistic control, even without the favours of official funding. And yet, of course, the money must come from somewhere…28

On this note, it is interesting to point to the fact that while Serra seems to indeed revel in showing the actual suffering and dying of the figure of power (it is the anarchist in him again, no doubt), Sokurov atypically refrains from showing his leaders actually dying. But irrespective of the Catalan’s and the Russian’s very different (and culturally informed) relationship with power, the fascination with the issue stems from the exact same place. For good reason: both Sokurov and Serra have shown their keen ability to sense the shifts in the zeitgeist, if only in how they expertly navigate the waters of the art-film world with their notoriously difficult cinema, understanding that power is not so much about possessing power (which is an always transient thing, as their films eminently demonstrate) so much as seeing and understanding power. And, indeed, seeing and understanding that change is afoot, irrespective of whether the epochal shift obscurely heralded by these films is the working of a single fascinating and preternaturally powerful individual (“Putin”), or simply one of the visible symptoms of the inevitable tectonic-like phenomenon we call History.


  1. The author wishes to thank Michael Cramer, Daniel Fairfax and Seung-hoon Jeong for their invaluable feedback on this piece, as well as Adrian Limoni and Michael Sarnoski, for their technical assistance with the various pictures and frame grabs.
  2. See Daniel Kasman, “Against Against: Creative Destruction with Albert Serra” (15 November 2015), https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/against-against-creative-destruction-with-albert-serra. All subsequent references to the piece are given as “Against, against”.
  3. Albert Serra, in “Against, against”.
  4. Yale University, Whitney Humanities Center, February 21, 2009. Those who were there that night will remember how the Catalan’s remark was as serious as it was awkward (the exact words were “I am the greatest Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel”).
  5. See http://artdependence.com/issue/february-2016/article/singularity-albert-serras-new-project-for-venice-biennale
  6. Such qualification as “transcendental minimalist” is the kind of stuff someone like Paul Schrader relishes, and should always be taken with a pinch of salt. But surely there is, in both director’s cases, a certain desire to strip down narrative from the usual sequence of events, three-act structure, etc. and propose instead a form of reflexion and contemplation which appeals to different areas of the viewer’s mind and suggests, perhaps, a yearning for transcendence through art.
  7. During the interview, Sokurov said that adapting Goethe was the most daunting task he’d ever accomplished, akin to adapting Don Quixote. To which Serra responded, in a rather endearing mix of adolescent candour and weathered arrogance: “I did!” (he was referring to his Honor de Cavalleria {Quixotic, 2006}). Gently mocking Serra’s bombastic posturing, Sokurov replied, with a mix of slight condescension and scepticism: “He did? Good for him!”
  8. As noted by this author, Sokurov’s fixation on male feet has to do in equal part with queerness and Christological imagery, see Jeremi Szaniawski, The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (Wallflower, 2014), particularly chapter 12.
  9. As Serra puts it: “the fact of doing nothing is the trace of doing a lot.” In Daniel Kasman and Kurt Walker, “Death Eating Life, An Interview with Albert Serra” (27 May 2016), https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/death-eating-life-an-interview-with-albert-serra. All subsequent references to the piece noted “Death Eating Life”.
  10. Fredric Jameson, “History and Elegy in Sokurov”, Critical Inquiry 33 (Autumn 2006), pp. 1-12.
  11. Mikhail Iampolski, “Un cinéma de la disparité: kairos et Histoire chez Sokourov” in Alexandre Sokourov, François Albera and Michel Estève, eds. (Condé-sur-Noireau: Editions Charles Corlet, 2009), pp. 39-48.
  12. Daniel Kasman, “Against, against”.
  13. Albert Serra, “Against, against”.
  14. Coined by Louis Delluc and extolled by Jean Epstein, photogénie is said to be the vibrant, almost animistic quality which all things and objects are said to acquire when captured by the camera, a mystical if immanent endowment of sorts procured by the way this “very subtle eye of glass” captures light.
  15. Serra explains his editing method for the film: “I could introduce sound ellipses even when there was no scene transition or break in the scene itself. In The Death of Louis XIV, after the autopsy scene, the priest arrives and the sound is continuous even though there is a temporal ellipsis.” In Geoffrey Chambord, “Albert Serra, d’une modernité à l’autre” (November 2, 2016), http://www.debordements.fr/Albert-Serra. All subsequent references to the piece noted “D’une modernité à l’autre”.
  16. As critics have observed, the film can be read in terms of the death of the New Wave, at a time when only Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard remain of the filmmakers of this golden age of French cinema, and Jean-Pierre Léaud, the icon, the Antoine Doinel of yore, is shown as a dying old king. Serra has dismissed this interpretation (as filmmakers usually do, either politely avoiding or resisting interpretation), and while it is clearly not far fetched or without merit, it seems indeed superficial, somewhat passé and even reactionary.
  17. Gilles Deleuze, taking his cue from Henri Bergson, develops the concept of crystal-image and time-crystals at length in chapter 4 of The Time-Image. This passage is particularly useful to the present discussion of films dealing with endless (and inscrutable) virtual spaces secluded to a small actual space (an apartment or a room): “Ever wider circuits can develop, which correspond to deeper and deeper layers of reality and to higher and higher levels of memory or thought.” (“Des circuits de plus en plus vastes pourront se développer, correspondant à des couches de plus en plus profondes de la réalité et à des niveaux de plus en plus hauts de la mémoire ou de la pensée.”) Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2: L’image-temps (Paris: Minuit, 1985), p. 93.
  18. In “D’une modernité à l’autre”, Serra explained how Léaud would act in each scene in a variety of ways, giving him a lot of options in the editing room. This accounts, in part, for the effect of “ebb and flow” the film provides in terms of the ailing king’s level of vitality.
  19. To this, one should add the mix of professional and non-professional actors Serra works with. The blurring of boundaries between them reinforces the strange if ineffable contrast, much as the sound of Spanish accents resonating through this recreated Versailles causes a feeling of estrangement and distance, yet also suggests a cruel return of the repressed, a late punishment for the dying king, considering Louis XIV’s life-long effort to subdue the Spanish crown.
  20. Both Louis XIV and Amour share the narrative of an ailing body watched helplessly by those socially or morally tied to it. The scene where Jean-Louis Trintignant wants to force a bottle of water into Emmanuelle Riva’s mouth is literally quoted in Louis XIV, chiaroscuro and all, and of course Haneke and Serra similarly use famous French actors who, in their fame and old age, carry with them a rich intertextual network of evocation.
  21. “Le cristal ne retient que la mort, mais la vie doit en sortir.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2: L’image-temps (Paris: Minuit, 1985), p. 115).
  22. “Est-ce les morts qui nous appartiennent, ou nous qui appartenons aux morts? Et les aimons-nous contre les vivants, ou pour et avec la vie ?” Ibid., p. 99.
  23. We find markers of time in The Death of Louis XIV (the music he hears on Saint Louis’ day, August 25, 1715, and the general timeline of his agony is well known thanks to historical sources), and Amour (the day of the second visit of the daughter played by Isabelle Huppert), but these are not systematic, and rather arbitrary and disconnected/disorienting, pointing to their sheer insignificance in a temporality of entropy and death, and reinforcing the impression in these films of an interpolation of virtual and actual time. In this, they are much like the time markers in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), and its snowy, wintry haze, which covers both bodies and minds in a zone of secluded indeterminacy, leading from virtual to actual madness, from which the only escape is, precisely, by rushing head-on into the symbol and locus of indeterminacy that is also a virtual image of the human brain: the maze.
  24. Sokurov, in Moloch, seems less sceptical, as he puts Hitler’s hubris – his ranting about a thousand-year Reich and the will to conquer death – in disquieting perspective.
  25. “Messieurs, nous ferons mieux la prochaine fois.” This Fagon says after marvelling at the size of Louis’ inner organs, said to be “Twice the size of a regular person’s”, as though commenting on some big catch at a fishing contest, ironically prolonging the sycophantic attitude which the King (now a carved open corpse) notoriously relished.
  26. Serra dismisses as nonsense the transhuman hypothesis of immortality for the leaders detaining “absolute power” (see “Death Eating Life”).
  27. See “Death Eating Life” and “D’une modernité à l’autre”.
  28. Not that all films must be made with money. My friend and experimental filmmaker Pip Chodorov recounted an argument he had once with Serra in Paris. Serra complained about the many inconveniences of filmmaking, including the need to work with a crew. To which Pip replied: “You don’t need a crew and you don’t need money. Just take a camera and shoot your film.”

About The Author

Jeremi Szaniawski is Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature and Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox (Wallflower, 2014) and the coeditor of Directory of World Cinema: Belgium, with Marcelline Block (Intellect, 2014), The Global Auteur: The Politics of Authorship in 21st Century Cinema, with Seung-hoon Jeong (Bloomsbury, 2016), and On Women’s Films Across Worlds and Generations, with Ivone Margulies (Bloomsbury, 2019).

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