Saturday, September 09, 2017

Rossellini, Louis XIV, the first

There are times as rare as they are beautiful when you stop asking whether what you’re watching is TV or cinema, because it’s irrelevant. If television weren’t the mushy disaster to which we are all too well accustomed, it would more often accommodate images like those of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) and everybody would be happy. What’s most extraordinary is not that Rossellini’s TV film should be regarded as a great film and a great moment in French television history, what’s most extraordinary is that Rossellini’s lesson has been neither replayed nor understood, nor studied in the slightest. For like everything presented with an elegance that seems totally natural, The Taking of Power rests on certain iron rules. 
Let’s take a scene at random. The deer-hunting scene with the young King and his court, dogs on the scent of an animal, a few bits of landscape and bushes. Let’s take one shot from this scene – the zoom on the dogs furiously swimming behind their prey – and ask a simple question: why is there such emotion and intensity in this zoom shot? Let us make the question the more emphatic given that the scene then diverges, abandoning the hunt and following the King who goes off to shag Madame de La Vallière in the undergrowth before the eyes of the chattering court. Why is it that from then on, we have the feeling that prior to this scene no dogs had ever yelped, swum or hunted? 
Perhaps the answer is this. It is by force of contagion, or through training, that these dogs have the appearance of being the first hunting dogs in the history of humanity. It is because (almost) all the other events narrated in the film are filmed like events, as if taking place for the first time. What makes Rossellini stand out (or Renoir with La Marseillaise) from other TV evocations of costumed History is that he’s only interested in those past events which their protagonists immediately perceived as events which shook them up. Rossellini and Gruault focus their attention on the way Louis XIV reinvents the rules for the exercise of power. They show the upset Queen mother, Fouquet arrested and the court stunned, ordered to silence and dress-up. They show all this as if it were a putsch and because of this, we get the sense of a last-minute glimpse of what daily life was like at the French court just before the putsch. Cinema is an art that always fails in reconstructing the past, but what it can do is seize the moment when something is passing
This is why Rossellini has always been interested in heroes. Not in the cretinous sense of the ‘superman’, but of in the sense that things will never be the same after them. In the didactic telefilms of his last period, the hero is the one who resets the pendulum from scratch, or initiates some founding gesture, or thinks some unprecedented thought*. The cinema, the art of the present, exists to play its part, that of recording a zero point of departure and simultaneously recording the enchanted or defeated attitudes of the period’s witnesses. The secular panoply of Rossellini’s heroes goes by way of Jesus, St Augustin, Descartes, Cosimo di Medici, Alberti, Pascal, Socrates, Marx and Louis XIV: all-or-nothing figures. ‘That’s something I feel is very important,’ R.R. affirmed. ‘As far as I’m concerned, you have to take risks all the time. Put in another way, never be bored.’ The fact is that for a gambler, it’s always the first time. 
‘I have often observed,’ remarks the young Louis XIV (the amazing Jean-Marie Patte), ‘that my first thought was the right one.’ Every action in the film, following the immutable moment of Mazarin’s death, is a ‘first’. The first roaming King’s councils, the first time Louis puts the Queen mother back in her place, the first time Colbert spells out his programme and above all a first in fashion, with the King as a guinea pig setting an example that brings about an abrupt transition from the hardly austere fashions of the Fronde to the furbelowed follies of a Court fettered to Versailles and ruined with ribbons. 
In these conditions does it matter whether the actors are relatively good or their acting wooden? Do the usual drawbacks of the costume drama matter? From the moment when Rossellini had the intelligence to narrate how, from one day to the next, there were men who neither knew where to put themselves nor what to put on, the subject and the medium are a perfect match for one another.  
That’s how even dogs enter history. 

* There is at least one limit to the Rossellini system: he’s obliged to only select first grade inventors, prophets or thinkers as heroes, because only them have created in their lifetime a feeling of a break with their contemporaries. Deep down, disdainful of both blind romanticism and cunning subconscious, Rossellini acts as if information had always circulated in a way that the great historical turns were accessible to the actors of History. For a film maker who had started by showing ordinary individuals caught in ignorance, it’s such a radical change that one could wonder if, pursuing this new stand headlong, Rossellini had not created another dogmatism.

First published in Libération on 5 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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