“...The repression and ritual of costume. Louis seizes on this – his second order as King is to tell everyone what to wear: “I order the court to observe mourning in black.” Immediately he is opposed. But Louis replies with insolence. Timid underneath and weak, but, lo, everyone's in black. So he tells Colbert: “I want you to summon the master tailor.” Here's the result. Hilarious. Absurd. But historically true. This is the film's point – the clothes. Louis domesticates the nobility by turning them into mummies under the weight and cost of court costume. He creates a totalitarian state out of whole cloth.” - Tag Gallagher, TAKING POWER
“Louis uses the vanity of the people, nothing more. Vanity is something that exists and is very solid. Louis had an absolutely empirical understanding of people.” - Rossellini quoted in TAKING POWER
“...Louis was able to tame a rebellious aristocracy partly by imposing on them fashions in food, clothing and architecture that were expensive enough to keep them in permanent debt.” - Dave Kehr, Review of Roberto Rossellini's History Films for the NY TimesI've been making friends with some old enemies lately, namely Rossellini's absolutely exquisite history films. Tonight I revisited Taking of Power by Louis XIV and was struck by its use of costume for the reasons quoted above. It just might be the greatest fashion film of all-time and it inspired me to pickup my old Wardrobes I Covet series.
Clothes not only make the (wo)man, but also the movie. Fashion can express more about a character than dialogue ever could. Fashion, if used correctly, can be one of cinema's most powerful tools.
In Taking of Power by Louis XIV, Louis takes control of his kingdom and the future of France by trendsetting. If you are in the court of the King, it is your duty to copy the King's fashions, no matter how much they may cost. His elegant, almost garish costumes changed France's economy and forced the nobility to depend on the crown more than ever before:
"Louis would stage elaborate ball after exquisite party after expensive festival and require luxurious attire at each one. The nobility wanted to remain within the higher circles, which were quickly congealing at the court of Versailles, because it was “believed that mere physical proximity to the monarch…would elevate them to a higher social level” and the king spent almost all of his time at court. It was thus necessary to attend all the fashionable balls and festivities and spend outrageous amounts of money on new clothing. Eventually it was almost certain the courtier would fall into debt and should they want to remain within the court they would be required to ask for a loan from the king. The king would only grant them said loan or even hear their request for the loan if they had been spending the proper amount of time at court. This endless cycle kept the nobles trapped in Versailles and focused on the wearing the proper and most fashionable clothing, which led them to be both too poor and too preoccupied to revolt against the monarch."Rossellini infuses the movie with the sensual potency of such refined accoutrement. From the Cardinal's simple red silk frock lying delicately in the arms of a beautiful woman to Louis' crimson and later black and white high dollar getup's, every single piece of clothing in the movie moves with emotion and beams with personality. Think of Louis' mother and the way her lovely blue dress swishes behind her as she turns away from Louis in the middle of the film. She is always turning away from him and that swish acts like the final closing of a door. Think of the lack of movement in the Cardinal's clothes. You can practically smell the powdery perfumes and stinky, infected piss on his night gown as he applies rouge to his deathly white cheeks for his last visit with the King. Think of Louis' starchy, bulky royal garments. Jean-Marie Patte wasn't a great actor, but he had the advantage of working with Rossellin who used his body as if he were simply a model. He accentuated Patte's good points and masked his bad ones: His stiff physique and monotone speech patterns became reserved emotion, as if reigning over France weighed down so heavily on his shoulders that he could barely move.
In the beginning of the movie, Louis is struggling to rise to power. His mentor and only friend, the Cardinal, has just died and he doesn't know who to trust or how to lead. His pudgy faced, short and stout body is generally covered with inane finery comprised of simple lines and cuts with few frills and usually creamy beige or muted green in color, which only adds to his wallflower mystique. Slowly, his sense of fashion and confidence as a King develops. It starts small with ordering everyone to wear black after the Cardinal's death. Soon it's majestic gold slippers and bigger feathers and ornate sashes.
Finally it's his grand entrance in the crimson caparison. Not since Bette Davis' equally jaw-dropping appearance in both the harlot red and feminine white dresses in Jezebel or Jim Carrey's/Jeff Daniels' tuxedos in Dumb and Dumber has an outfit made such an impact on me. Like Davis' gowns, the sheer power and garish vastness of Louis' costume overwhelms the frame and almost stuns you into forgetting to breathe – it's just too much to take in. By putting on this ensemble, Louis has finally become the person he was born to be, at least on the outside, and must continue playing the part until the end of his life.
Much has been said of watching Scarlett O'Hara get fitted and squeezed into her corset in Gone with the Wind to try and achieve the near-impossible eighteen and a half inch waist. Nothing sums up her character better – she can reign terror over Atlanta as long as she looks like a Southern Belle. Louis will always look like a King. However, few fashion scenes elicit such emotion and understanding as seeing a graying Louis strip his royal fashion trappings during the final moments of Taking of Power by Louis XIV. It's a moment of peace and personal reflection – he lifts the burden he created for himself, throws it on his office chair and sits on the edge of his desk to read a book in a robe, not even bothering to remove the scattered clothes to sit more comfortably. But he is alone, so very alone.
The two films I've compared Taking of Power by Louis XIV are women's pictures. It's true that fashion films usually tend to be female-oriented and rightfully so. Fashion is one of the only tried and true pieces of arsenal in the women's picture artillery. Try thinking of Audrey Hepburn without picturing her in the black Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany's or Faye Dunaway without her beret and chic gangster clothes in Bonnie and Clyde – it's damn near impossible. Fashion is used in a similar way in Taking of Power by Louis XIV, but the clothes do more than accentuate and articulate the emotions of the King and his peers, they, in both actual form and discussion, establish the profundity of Rossellini's version of history and examine the roles these characters have played in it. Clothes not only make the man and the movie, they also make history.