King Lear

By Hal Hinson

June 18, 1988

Watching Jean-Luc Godard's very loose adaptation of "King Lear" is like finding yourself in the middle of a poem whose meaning the poet refuses to make clear.

The film, which was born of the notorious contract-on-a-napkin deal between Menahem Golan, the head of Cannon Films, Godard and Norman Mailer, who was scheduled to star and write the script as well, is more of a free-associative romp on "Lear" than an adaptation.

Or it could be seen as the filmmaker's elaborate revenge on his backers.

Or as a labored, not terribly funny, practical joke, the butt of which is none other than the filmmaker himself.

Whatever the interpretation, the resulting work is infuriating, baffling, challenging and fascinating, sometimes simultaneously. It's a goof, and you can't help but feel annoyed with it; but in places it's a brilliant goof, and the brilliance only causes greater annoyance. The reason for the frustration is that, in addition to everything else, the director is trashing his own talent.

Mailer, who ended up not writing the script, is seen briefly at the beginning of the film, finishing off a script about a Mafia capo, then, along with his daughter Kate (who was also scheduled to star in the film), he takes off, never to be seen or heard from again. (Reports are that The Great Writer, as he is referred to in the press kit, lasted only one day on the set.)

Without his star, the director engaged Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald to play the aging Mafioso, Learo, and his young daughter, Cordelia. And though Ringwald is rather sweet in the role and Meredith invests his lines with power, at times they bear a greater resemblance to Mailer and his daughter than to Shakespeare's characters.

In "Lear," Godard is as interested in obscuring his themes as he is in elaborating them. He makes no attempt to actually deal with Shakespeare's original. Everything has been changed, the plot discarded, leaving only a sprinkling of the original lines and a few characters. But did anyone really expect Godard to take a straightforward approach?

The film takes place at an unspecified time after Chernobyl, which has apparently destroyed the world. The setting is the Hotel Beau Rivage in Nyon, Switzerland, which functions as a sort of comfy, post-apocalyptic resort. The central character is William Shakespeare Jr. V (played by the theater director Peter Sellars), who has the task of reconstructing his ancestor's work.

Titles are projected periodically throughout the film, referring to it as "An Approach," "A Clearing" (or "A cLEARing"), "Three Journeys Into Lear" and "A Picture Shot in the Back." There are also scattered references to Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, musings on images and words, shots of classical artworks, Goya and Vela'zquez in particular, and some horseplay with sparklers and a Xerox machine. There's even a brief appearance by Woody Allen, wearing a Picasso T-shirt, as someone called Mr. Alien.

There are fragments of an interpretation here, but only fragments. And some of it is tantalizing fun, but for the most part, we can only venture wild guesses as to what's going on or what the director is getting at.

Especially puzzling are the sequences in which Godard himself appears, decorated like a kind of Rastafarian Christmas tree with variously colored audio and video patch cords, chomping a cigar and speaking, nearly incomprehensibly, out of the side of his mouth. His character is called the Professor, but his function is more that of the Fool -- and a Fool who's been reading up on semiotics at that -- spouting gibberish and making nonsense.

A subcurrent in the film -- in fact, in many of Godard's later films -- is the filmmaker's despair over the impossibility of ever making sense. Behind this is Godard's inability to resolve an essential contradiction in his work -- his reverence for ideas and theories and all sorts of philosophical speculation, and his utter disregard for a sustained, coherent presentation of them. It's as if he believes that a jumble is the best anyone could ever hope to make of things.

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