The Taking of Power by Louis XIV
Filmmaking legend Roberto Rossellini brings his passion for realism and unerring eye for the everyday to this portrait of the early years of the reign of France’s “Sun King,” and in the process reinvents the costume drama. The death of chief minister Cardinal Mazarin, the construction of the palace at Versailles, the extravagant meals of the royal court: all are recounted with the same meticulous quotidian detail that Rossellini brought to his contemporary portraits of postwar Italy. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV dares to place a larger-than-life figure at the level of mere mortal.
Criterion presents Roberto Rossellini’s historical film The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (a.k.a. The Rise of Louis XIV) in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on this dual-layered disc. The image has not been picture-boxed, though has slim black bars on the left and right.
The image is decent, though has a few minor issues. The most impressive aspect of it is how clean it looks, with only a few marks scattered throughout. Grain is present but is natural and not heavy. Sharpness and detail is fairly strong, though there are moments that look a little soft around the edges, specifically longer shots, and I can’t say I noticed any bad instances of noise or artifacts.
The film’s colour scheme is limited, sticking to more muted colours that would have been common at the time, but we do get some striking reds. I was thrown off by a few things with the look of the film, though. At first I thought the contrast may have been off as darker colours at times looked way too dark, limiting detail, and then whites were incredibly bright, even blooming at times. Skin tones also varied, looking fairly natural, but then without notice the faces of the actors would suddenly turn quite white for an instance. I wasn’t sure at first whether this was an issue with the transfer or was the look of the film. After going through the supplements, though, and listening to comments about the lighting (where the director of photography was trying to recreate the look of paintings from the period) I believe this is all intentional or at least a side effect of the film’s lighting, especially since these occurrences appear to be limited to interior scenes.
It’s a nice looking transfer, surprisingly clean and sharp. It has a few small issues, some caused by how it was filmed, but nothing that will harm one’s viewing.
The French Dolby Digital mono track is actually pretty good for what it is. It’s quite clean, with no background noise or distortion. Voices are clear and articulate and the music sounds great, with some good range to it.
Kept separate from Criterion’s Eclipse set of historical films by Rossellini (being released the same day as this title,) Criterion’s release of The Taking of Power by Louis XIV has a small yet strong collection of supplements covering the film.
Taking Power is a 25-minute visual essay by Tag Gallagher examining the film’s place within the context of Rossellini’s “history films” phase. He goes over various aspects of the production and touches on Rossellini’s intent, even quoting the director at times and also pointing out certain items from clips of the film (and other Rossellini films,) including Rossellini’s use of the non-professional (and very nervous) Jean-Marie Patte, who played Louis XIV, and using his nervousness and rather stiff delivery to the director’s advantage. It touches on his declaration of “cinema is dead!” and then his move to television and his other films, including his history films, and analyzes his techniques. It also offers a basic demonstration/explanation of how Rossellini would use mirrors in place of sets to save costs. As a whole it offers a nice analysis of this film and the director’s work.
Next on the list is an interview with Renzo Rossellini, son of Roberto Rossellini. This is a very brief 5-minute interview. He quickly goes over his father’s love of television, but more as a tool that he thought could help “free mankind from ignorance.” He then talks quickly about the quick shoot of Taking of Power… and gets into detail about a sequence he had to shoot when Roberto went to be with his daughter, Isabella Rossellini, who was undergoing surgery. He expresses some guilt about how he shot his sequence, since he used techniques his father purposely avoided, though his father did like what he did if only because he couldn’t figure out how he shot it. It’s unfortunately brief, but interesting and worth viewing.
The disc then closes off with another interview that appears to be ported from a French MK2 DVD, featuring artistic adviser/writer Jean-Dominique de la Rochefoucauld and script supervisor Michelle Podroznik. Running about 14-minutes (and heavily picture-boxed) the two, recorded separately, talk about making the film and working with Rossellini, including how he came to work on the film, and his mission to use television as a teaching tool against “barbarism”. There’s more information about Rossellini’s insistence on using non-professional actors and his use of Jean-Marie Patte’s nervousness in front of the camera. There’s also some technical information on his use of mirrors for creating backgrounds and then the lighting of the film. Put together with the visual essay you get a rather insightful look at the making of the film, and a decent look at how the director worked.
A short booklet with an essay on the film by Colin MacCabe is included. The essay offers a brief look at Rossellini’s move from film to television, his reasons for it, and his work on this film.
Disappointingly one feature announced for this DVD in the original press release, a documentary called The Last Utopia which covered Rossellini’s later television work, didn’t make it. I’m not sure why this was pulled (rights issues maybe) though maybe it’s for the best since the documentary is about 90-minutes and it probably would have impacted the film’s transfer with the amount of space it would have to take up.
Despite that disappointment we do get a fairly thorough collection of supplements, each one worth going through.
The Last Utopia, if included, would have made this release an incredible bargain (as a lower-tier release you can find it for about $20 on some sites) but the supplements we do get still offer a solid look at the making of the film, Rossellini’s techniques, and his transition to television, making this disc one of the better and more satisfying lower-tier releases I’ve come across from Criterion. With the surprising (if only above-average) transfer this disc is an easy recommendation.