La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV (usually mistranslated as The Rise to Power of Louis XIV) is probably the best known of Roberto Rossellini’s so called “History Films,” notable for their attention to material detail, interest in intellectual and political development, slow, even pacing and exquisite period recreations. Undoubtedly not for everyone, the film nonetheless offers a rich, sophisticated feast for those who share the director’s faith in the medium’s capacity to bring the past to life.

Louis XIV is also the most accessible of the History Films that I’ve seen, probably because it offers a balance between Rossellini’s intellectual interests and a strong, dramatic conflict. The central event in the film is Louis’s coup d’état against his own privy council, executed in order to dislodge his corrupt, powerful Minister of Finance, Fouquet. While treated in a calm, measured style, the build up to Fouquet’s arrest has all the ear marks of conventional melodrama. (These are the same events fictionalized by Dumas in The Man in the Iron Mask.) What sets the film apart from standard treatments of the subject is that Louis’s moves are depicted as much for their political and economic significance as for dramatic suspense. Fouquet’s fall is shown as necessary for France to prosper and blossom under the radiance of the Sun King.

Rossellini’s audacity of approach was accentuated by his decision to cast a non-actor in the role of Louis. Short, slightly chubby, Jean-Marie Patte is no one’s idea of glamorous. Nor does he compensate for his features with a natural acting gift. In fact, surrounded by professional stage and screen actors, his lack of polish is even more glaring and awkward. Yet somehow, perhaps because of that very contrast, he is strangely convincing as Louis. From virtually his first appearance, he commands attention.

It is thus ironic that one of the film’s themes is how appearance can be used to manipulate. As the physically unprepossessing Patte is dressed in elaborate fripperies chosen by Louis to be expensive and excessive, and as the king builds the palace of Versailles with an eye to overwhelming foreign visitors, we are shown the transformation not just of one man’s appearance, but of spectacle itself into an instrument of state power. As many have noted, this is not display for its own sake. It is visual pleasure as intimidation.

While some critics have thus argued that Louis XIV is a “Marxist” film, particularly since that criticism of the political use of spectacle could be leveled reflexively against Louis XIV itself, such claims are ultimately rather dubious. For even if we accept the film’s equation of spectacle with coercion, its baroque surfaces overwhelm the theme through the pleasure they provide us. La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV succeeds, in other words, precisely because it is a sensuously compelling work of art, not a tract.