King Lear

By Desson Howe

June 17, 1988

William Shakespeare would need a sense of humor to view Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear" without getting steamed up in his bodkins. Also entitled "King Lear: Fear and Loathing," Godard's offering has zip to do with Hunter S. Thompson, only slightly more to do with Shakespeare and everything to do with Jean-Luc Godard.

The veteran of the French New Wave is -- if anything -- at war with the bard. If Shakespeare cuts a crystalline line, Godard splash-paints with the camera. Where the playwright values clarity and poetry, Godard seems to go for obfuscation and banality. Shakespeare aims for universality, while Godard seeks to devalue everything. His work is intensely personal, specifically closed to objective interpretation -- and resistant to explication.

As far as a plot can be discerned, a young American named Shakespeare Jr. the 5th (Peter Sellars, of American National Theater fame) is trying to "recover" the work of his famous ancestor. Constantly writing in a notebook, his thoughts overheard as narration, he says things such as: "Love's Labors Lost. As you wish. As you wish. As you wish. As you witch. As you which? As you watch. As you watch . . ."

You get the idea. Shakespeare Jr. gets interested in an old gangster and his young daughter Cordelia (Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald) who, it happens, are talking over lunch in lines from the real "King Lear."

Godard brings into play his intellectual obsession with the emotive power of sound and image -- at the cost of meaning as we know it. In addition to non-sequiturian dramatic scenes involving Sellars, Meredith, Ringwald and even Godard himself (as someone called The Professor, his hair festooned with telephone and electrical cords in AT&T Rasta chic), we are bombarded with Renaissance paintings, photographs of modern artists (including Robert Bresson, Orson Welles and Jean-Paul Sartre) and recurrent self-analytical titles such as "NO THING," "KING LEAR -- AN APPROACH," "KING LEAR -- A CLEARING" and "POWER AND VIRTUE."

Making sense of Godard is hardly the point; isolating what you can enjoy is more advisable. Cinematographer Sophie Mantigneux creates crisp, memorable images and Godard masterfully edits them together (whether the final result is worth the effort is subject to question).

Sellars appears determined to get through, whether it makes sense or not. Godard, as the dreadlocked professor, veers between didactic pretentiousness and self-mockery, talking from the corner of his mouth and sprouting such Godard-isms as, "An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic but because the cessation of ideas is decent and true." Woody Allen, credited as The Fool, plays a film editor who reads more "Lear" lines with that trademark Bronx inflection. You keep expecting him to turn to the camera and say, "I'm sitting here in a Jean-Luc Godard movie, and I'm panicked. Just panicked." He doesn't.

"King Lear" is in English and French, with subtitles.

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