Directed by Roberto Rossellini. 1966.

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Reviewing a film seen in the cinema and watched on DVD can be very different. This is not just for the obvious reason that the ideal screen size and viewing environment are extremely important depending on whether we are watching an outdoor epic or an intimate drama. It is also because of DVD extra features, which are often minimal but occasionally exceptionally illuminating.

One example, which I reviewed in Talking Pictures some time ago, was Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, which I borrowed without even bothering to watch the film itself (I already had it on VHS video). The terrific extras, substantially longer in total than the film, made the cost more than worthwhile. Now comes this masterpiece by Roberto Rossellini, in a Criterion edition from the US (you need an “all region” player in the UK), which has not been released in the UK, where it is more commonly known as The Rise to Power of Louis XIV. I refer to the DVD extras later.

Originally made for French TV in 1966, when it is said to have gained 20 million viewers (can you imagine a similar film in the UK attracting even 2 million?). The Taking of Power by Louis XIV is easily the best-known of the long series of “educational” films which dominated the latter part of Rossellini’s career. It shows in great detail, with particular emphasis on clothes and court rituals, how Louis (the “Sun King”), following his assumption of power on the death of France’s Chief Minister Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, used his political skills to accumulate even more power into his hands, including by such bizarre (to us) methods as creating the most extraordinary costume for himself, complete with ridiculous-looking wig and high-heeled shoes to make himself look taller. In an even more extraordinary scene, he is the solitary eater at a banquet attended also by scores, perhaps hundreds, of fawning courtiers and servers. Yet at the end of the film, when the solitary Louis slowly divests himself of his outlandish clothing, he reads that “neither death nor the sun can be looked at directly”, and clearly realises that his apparently total power is, indeed, merely apparent; he is an ordinary mortal after all. The slow use of the zoom lens (invented by Rossellini), together with the costumes, make the look of the film rather like that of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

The DVD extras include a booklet written by Colin McCabe, video interviews with the second unit director and two other collaborators, and a 25-minute video essay by Tag Gallagher, illustrating Rossellini’s methods with numerous brief clips from many of his other films. It is this essay which is most fascinating. The director’s usual practice was to cast only non-actors, and here the young man playing Louis (chosen because of his striking resemblance to portraits) was extremely nervous in front of the camera and proved incapable of learning his lines. Gallagher shows how Rossellini used this to advantage, getting him to read his dialogue off blackboards and achieving a quite naturalistic and formal speaking mode which, apparently, is how Louis would have addressed people. In particular Louis’ intense fear, not least of an uprising by the masses supported by some of the nobility, is brought out by the actor’s real fear. The use of lighting and movement to convey emotion is also explained by Gallagher, with illustrations from other films, including from his “neo-realist” period.

It is to be hoped that there will be a UK release for this film, complete with the extras on the US edition.

Alan Pavelin
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