At the 2016 New York Film Festival press conference for the film, you said that playing the death of Louis XIV became a way for you to face and go through your own death.
When Serra offered me the role of Louis XIV, I said to myself that this film would mean a great deal to me, in my life and in my filmography. I said to myself that I must succeed, with all the energy that’s in me. So I was in Louis XIV’s bed, trapped within an apparatus of three cameras that filmed me continuously from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, every single day. Even though the apparatus was hard to put up with, I hung on until the end. Any other actor would have said, “This is too much. I can’t make it.” Well, I decided to make it.
Through this apparatus, I stepped into the shoes of an old man in his death throes, and you cannot avoid personal repercussions if you play someone like that. And that’s when I began to feel the proximity of my own death and realized that Albert Serra was recording my own death through Louis XIV’s. At my age, you cannot banish death from your life. I was reminded of Jean Cocteau’s quote: “Cinema is death at work.”
In the editing, Serra cut all the dialogue and only kept the sounds and the force of the acting. This yielded a film made of exhales and wheezes. The immersion was so powerful that I did not get out completely unharmed. Serra filmed in static shots and in the editing played off of the intensity of looks. His editing proves that the film had to rely on performance rather than on the script and staging. For me, the agony of Louis XIV is hidden in the wheezes, and the physical intensity of the experience made me enter the process of my own death.
I just finished a film with the Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa. He also asked me to play a man of my age. In a way, for me these two films complete each other. I also have an interaction with death in Suwa’s film, but that role corresponds more to how I am in real life.
I fought so much for Serra’s film, and we succeeded in having the film in the official selection at Cannes, and now it is circulating all around the world. We won the game. By way of this film, I accepted the wisdom of old age and that I am going to die. I have reached an acceptance of the meeting, and this meeting is death. It feels good to be able to keep working in the profession that I love with good directors. I will die happy.
How was working with Albert Serra different from the other young filmmakers you’ve worked with, such as Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello, Tsai Ming-liang?
These are people that I respect a lot, and they are cinephiles who come from a tradition that is close to me. I made two films with Assayas. I had a substantial part in Paris Awakens , and I feel that I got to express myself in the Bonello [The Pornographer, 2001]—it was a pleasurable acting experience. But with Serra, the line has been crossed. I went all the way. I am not acting in that film; I am someone who is waiting for the meeting. And this was something that François [Truffaut] really loved in me as well, a sort of hallucinatory immersion. In Serra’s film, there was something that has been transformed, something that exceeded even Serra himself.
Serra’s attempt to demystify Louis XIV is also an attempt to demystify you.
Two worlds collide in this film, and I have embodied Louis XIV for eternity, with the maximum truthfulness. Serra took shots at the beginning of the film where I was very angry and put them at the end. In my eyes, you can see the sense of death and the proximity of the meeting. I gave it all to Serra and he grabbed it in the editing. It’s funny to see the image of the little boy in The 400 Blows transformed into this agonized old man.
In cinema, there are rituals of transitions like for the Indians. These are difficult to process, but the pleasure of acting keeps you going. You have to come to an acceptance. But for eternity, I am the death of Louis XIV, what is left of him.
To read Yonca Talu’s feature on The Death of Louis XIV, purchase the March/April 2017 issue.
Closer Look: The Death of Louis XIV opens on March 31 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which is also hosting a Jean-Pierre Léaud retrospective from March 29 to April 6.
Yonca Talu is a filmmaker living in New York. She grew up in Istanbul and graduated from NYU Tisch.