Godard’s King Lear

king lear jean-luc godard

Early in 2002, I studied Shakespeare’s masterpiece King Lear as part of my A-Level English course. To help me better understand and appreciate the play, my father was kind enough to take me to London’s famous Almeida theater to see a production featuring Oliver Ford Davies in the titular role. The experience was mind-blowing.

Truth be told, I’m not really much of a theater person. I’m sorry, but film is my art form of choice by far. But the Almeida production was something else. I’d never before experienced a anything like it, and I never have since. During the famous storm scene, the walls of the theater literally cracked and fell all around us as an oceanful of real water chucked it down, drenching the stage and the actors alike. It was absolutely absorbing.

Around the same time, we also went to see a film version of King Lear that was playing at my then-local art house cinema. It was Jean-Luc Godard’s infamous 1987 film, and it was both mine and my father’s first encounter with Godard. Although it couldn’t have been more different from the Almeida production, it was just as significant an experience for me.

Oh boy, we didn’t have a clue what we were in for. There were only five or six other people in the theater with us, and I don’t think any of us had a clue what we had just watched when it was all over with. Even the jovial chap who’d made a point to loudly joke to the room before the film screened that his three daughters had abandoned him and so he’d had to come alone wandered out sheepishly and dazed when all was said and done.

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what a crazy experience it is. It’s Godard at his wildest, yet boasts a cast including big names such as Woody Allen, Peter Sellars, Burgess Meredith, and Molly Ringwald. Oh, and a bunch of noisy seagulls.

The tale of the film’s genesis goes thus: Godard made the film after making a deal with a producer at Cannes Film Festival in 1985. The contract he signed was written on a napkin. Norman Mailer was hired to write the screenplay, and then demanded that he also play Lear. But Godard and Mailer fell out on the first day of shooting and Mailer left the production. At which point Godard tossed the script.

Left with just a couple of takes of one scene, he used all the footage he shot that day in the final film. The scene actually opens the movie; both takes play one after the other as our introduction to a film which seeks to deconstruct not just cinema, but all art-forms in general.

Weekend is often regarded as the film where Godard kills cinema, but King Lear takes a much clearer shot at it. When Tarantino blew up the movie theater at the end of Inglourious Basterds, I thought of this film.

Truth be told, Godard’s King Lear it has very little at all to do with my favorite Shakespeare play. At all. The plot – if you want to be so self-delusional as to call it that – is based around William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth, who wanders around a post-apocalyptical landscape trying to piece together his famous ancestor’s lost texts. You see, in the future, all art is lost and all language has been destroyed. If you’ve seen any of Godard’s most austere and obfuscating movies, then this will sound like familiar territory ripe for exploring the particular themes and ideas that Godard is so interested in exploring here.

As a budding film geek, King Lear opened my eyes to all sorts of things that film could accomplish but which I had never even contemplated. Although Godard has made many better films both before and since, King Lear is one of those which I keep itching to revisit every year or so. Unfortunately, it’s been a while. At one point I owned a VHS copy, I might still have it somewhere, I just don’t have a VHS player. Apparently it was freely available on YouTube at one point, but I haven’t been able to find it recently. In a way, I suppose that’s ironic for a film which argues for the need to actively preserve art and language, lest we create for ourselves a very bleak existence indeed. If you’re able to track it down, I highly recommend it. (Hint hint, Criterion, if you’re listening…)

Make no mistake, the film is an utter nutjob, but it’s also fascinating, intriguing and incredible. To call it a bad film is do do it a great injustice. You just have to dig deeper. And maybe be a teeny weeny bit masochistic.


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