The Subversive Logic of Albert Serra


“Why do we need images?” asks Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra. “Why do we not simply trust our eyes, why do we try to reproduce reality?” These are hypothetical questions, but ones the director of the new film The Death of Louis XIV can easily answer. “We want to live in a different world. And we want to be free from our logic. But at the same time, that has consequences.”

It’s a notion Serra explores in The Death of Louis XIV, his metaphysical reimagining of the last days of the French monarch, known as the “Sun King.” The iconic French New Wave actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, most famous for his movies with François Truffaut (starting with The 400 Blows), transforms into Louis XIV in an astonishing turn. The 72-year-old actor recently described his performance style as a whole to Film Comment as “a sort of hallucinatory immersion.” Working with Serra, he elaborated, “the line has been crossed. I went all the way. I am not acting in that film.”

Previously, Serra has made movies about Don Quixote and the Three Kings. His 2013 film Story of My Death, which won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival, incorporated both Dracula and Casanova. The radical and experimental 41-year-old director has said that he likes working with literary and historical characters because our familiarity with them means he doesn’t have to spend much time establishing who they are. Instead, he can focus on creating an original mood and style.

With The Death of Louis XIV, the director has made what appears to be a classical film, but his method of making films is far from traditional. During his shoots, Serra amasses hundreds of hours of footage using multiple—in this case, three—digital cameras. Dialogue is usually improvised or created during the shoot. It’s only during editing that the shape of his films begins to emerge. The concept of the film morphs drastically in the process, to the point where the finished product may be barely recognizable to those present on the set.

Serra’s films are intended to be immersive experiences that require viewer participation, akin to reading a book. “Sometimes,” he says, “you go to a film and well, you are not very concentrated. In reading, you have to concentrate, to spend the time it requires in order to feel the experience of the work.” Serra adds, “You have to put all of yourself there to experience something new and to feel and perceive an atmosphere that is unprecedented.”

We spoke with the unorthodox director via Skype ahead of the film’s opening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where it will screen as part of a 20-film career retrospective on Léaud’s work as an actor.

ALBERT SERRA: There’s something strange in this idea of fulfilling our idea of the past with something that is physical. We don’t have moving images of most of these people, so it’s like you have the real person when he or she is dressed and is moving in front of you, in present time. This is shocking in some sense. You arrive at this reality that’s more real than all the information you have.

In fact, I deal with traces of history—all the pieces of information we have—as if they are opaque. When I deal with the facts that we’ll use for this script, I don’t know the meaning of all these things, these characters. I want to give meaning to the history of the past, but to do it in real time, as if it were lived. This gives a special touch to my films, because you feel that I didn’t have one single idea of the concrete meaning of what I wanted to say or what you have to feel or what you have to think. For me, this is the beauty, to see the past being born in front of you.

JULIA YEPES: With this film, I did get a pretty clear idea of who Louis XIV might have been. One might think he would be completely out of touch with the reality of the world around him—and he is in some ways—but he seems completely aware that he’s facing death.

SERRA: But you see what you say—seems. This is the power of images, the ambiguity. You are never completely sure of anything. With written language, it’s more concrete. You have to establish some facts, but in movies, you see things happening, and the exact meaning behind the images is more ambiguous. And this, I think, is very powerful, with history. Because all this history that was a cliché suddenly becomes completely unstable. We really have to be careful about what we think and what we are seeing and what we are doing with these images.
In this film, it’s especially true because the performance of Jean-Pierre is so amazing that you’re never sure what he’s doing exactly, and what is behind this mask of power. It’s something abstract.

A friend of mine said, “In the film we are very close to all the other characters and we understand deeply what they represent, what they are doing there. They’re like people we know in real life, nowadays.” But when you get closer to the king himself, it’s quite mysterious. It’s abstract, you know. This mystery, for me, has to do with this abstraction of absolute power. What is the interest of absolute power? This is the main point. Here, he has to face mortality, and he has to face very quotidian problems, but still what is the goal of absolute power? To keep on with this absolute power? [laughs] And Jean-Pierre’s performance deals with that.

YEPES: Many people who see this film may be familiar with the movies that Léaud did in the ’60s and ’70s with an array of notable European filmmakers.

SERRA: What is beautiful here is that Jean-Pierre is doing something that is slightly connected with his own past as an actor, but at the same time, I think that he’s doing something completely new. I think that comes from a non-region of himself, even.

Jean-Pierre described that in one of our most recent conversations. He said for the first time in his life, he felt he was an old man. He said, “Usually, people are young, and then they pass through a long period, and then, okay, they are old.” For a big part of their lives, they are in this middle. And he said, “I never knew this middle. I passed from being young—this young, seductive guy—to being old, without this middle passage.” He never felt he was consuming his life in the middle stage. “No! I was still young, and suddenly I was completely old.” And for him, this was shocking, I think. This shock in some sense was internal, but also physical, because we didn’t play with the makeup. There is makeup, but not to create him older than he is. So in some sense there was internal and physical shock for him to realize for himself, as an actor and as a person, that there was no other way—he had passed the point of no return, as the doctors said in the film.

Jean-Pierre said that he learned how to face death in this film. So I think there were a lot of small, or not so small shocks, linking with his own life. I achieved something with this shock. Still being Jean-Pierre and having some link with his past as an actor, there was something new in his gestures, in the way he acted, and the way he talked that’s completely appropriate for Louis XIV, but at the same time, a little bit of it is him.

YEPES: You’ve said that you didn’t discuss with Jean-Pierre who Louis XIV was.


YEPES: And you didn’t have any rehearsals.

SERRA: No. For Jean-Pierre, that was a little bit shocking because he was used to shooting with one camera. He was used to having a deep relationship with the camera. He is known for that.

When he realized at the beginning of shooting that he couldn’t establish a deep relationship with any camera because he didn’t know what the cameras were doing and where they were moving, he was a little lost and untrusting. And then he found the way to develop all these things that were inside his mind and his body and to offer all them in an original way because he couldn’t show something directly to one single camera.

YEPES: Do professional actors usually want to be directed?

SERRA: It depends. They have to adapt to the methodology of the filmmaker, you know? In fact, my methodology is based on the idea of waiting for when inspiration arrives for the actors. And that means that the light, the cinematography, everything has to be ready for that moment, so they don’t have to wait. 

I am following the deep moods of the actors. I feel there is something original and really, really intense in that.

I have the capacity and my system has the elasticity to move the whole film, even at the level of script, to profit from this unique moment that sometimes arrives by chance.

YEPES: I want to make sure readers understand this idea of non-communication.

SERRA: It’s the idea that if you communicate, it means you have something to communicate. If you don’t tell the actor what to do, what will he do? You don’t know. If you don’t tell the technician what to do, what will he do? I don’t know, and probably he doesn’t know either. There is something there that breaks my expectation. It’s not better or worse [than the standard method of filmmaking], it’s different.

The avant-garde artists and musicians of the 20th century did some things just for fun, because doing things just for fun was a subversive approach to methodology. Also, they had this attitude of not being professional. Godard said that the cinema was full of “professionals of the profession.” In art, I think it’s not useful to be a professional of the profession. It will not give you something new.

YEPES: Are you a fan of Godard as a filmmaker?

SERRA: I’m a fan of him. His films are different. I am influenced by the attitude and intelligence of people. What inspires me in these great filmmakers is the attitude and the commitment to be faithful to the logic or non-logic of their own art, and to accept nonsense—because usually in the making of a film, people are scared of nonsense.

YEPES: It’s hard to know what the tone is in certain scenes of your movies. Sometimes it’s serious, but it also seems absurd, ironic, or playful.

SERRA: Yes, it’s part of my style. There’s the instability of my attitude as an artist, the instability of our perception of the world, and the idea that with this mix, you never know exactly what’s the point of view of the filmmaker. This breaks the stability of the belief that a filmmaker is somebody who has a logical relationship with his own material. These elements create this atmosphere that I find more interesting than a normal atmosphere, based only on the characters.

We didn’t want to live anymore in the old logic. And I like that. The consequence of that is to create the dream of that, but we all know this dream may be not possible. So here we have the key of the ambiguity of the atmosphere of my films. Is it possible, this dream? Is it as funny as it seems, or is it tragic?

It’s a perfect metaphor of Louis XIV. You see his death. It’s totally banal, in some sense. We see it every day in real life, this banality that we barely see in films. But at the same time, it’s a feature film. It’s dramatic, it’s striking, but it’s banal. It’s very difficult with the images of the film to make that distinction. As you said before, are we in a tragic moment or a totally banal moment? Are we in a spiritual approach to death or are we in a materialistic approach to death of this simple body that finishes energy?

YEPES: I’m trying to envision what a day on the set of this shoot was like. If Jean-Pierre had something he wanted to try, would you shoot it?

SERRA: Non-communication means if he has an idea he simply does it. And if I have an idea, I simply do it. You don’t ask permission. 

YEPES: Are you filming the whole time—the whole day?

SERRA: Yeah. Not the whole day, but as continuously as health and energy allow. But the idea is he has the freedom to do whatever he wants, I have the freedom to do whatever I want, and then in the edit, I decide what is good or what is bad. I like to be challenged. I like rebellion. It adds some richness and some interest to life.

YEPES: On the set, do you try to refrain from saying, “That was good,” or, “That was bad”?

SERRA: Obviously, there is a little of that.

YEPES: There has to be a little bit of direction. 

SERRA: Obviously. A little bit, especially on the negative side, but I try to reduce it to the minimum. I say, “Don’t do that,” but never positive things, never positive meanings. It’s a little bit auto-destructive. One of my systems, in fact, is based on the idea that every phase of a film has to go against what was done in the previous one. 

It’s a contrast because I am quite a positive man in real life. In fact, even when I have a hard discussion with somebody, it lasts only five minutes. Then I forget. And I forgive everything. But at the same time, as I am such an easygoing guy, to create something more intense, I have to be auto-destructive on the making of a film. And this will guarantee some density.

YEPES: You’ve talked about beauty versus truth. You’ve said beauty is an experience. It’s never just an illustration. Whereas truth can be an illustration because it’s information. 

SERRA: There was a beautiful quote during the shooting. There were hundreds of hesitations: “I don’t know, did Louis XIV set this thing this way? Or was that object used at that time?” It was full of decisions. The film is full of small details. And one day Jean-Pierre said, “If it’s beautiful, it’s true,” meaning what will create truth onscreen will be the beauty, not if it’s closer to the idea we have of the history or the information we have about how it happened in the past.

YEPES: Is the goal of filmmaking for you essentially to find that beauty?

SERRA: You are looking for the main sentence of the article, no? I would not put it this way. It’s a little bit simple. What am I doing as a filmmaker? What is the goal? To look for the unknown atmosphere that hasn’t been described before. This is my only goal. Unknown images. Because if not, it’s boring, no?

I wanted to be a real writer, you can put it this way, but I was lazy. So I thought that cinema would be funnier because it’s collective, and it’s crazy, and it’s chaotic, and also because I was based in Spain. So I said it will be easy to make a career of that—because all the other filmmakers there are very bad. And it will be funny at the same time. So this was the point. It will be funnier, easier, and maybe at the end there will be some unknown beauty, and maybe on the way we’ll create the dream that a different logic is possible for life.