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1001 Overlooked Movies - KING LEAR (1987)

An ongoing series in which we highlight movies we believe were overlooked by the popular '1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die' books.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Leos Carax, Julie Delpy




This is about as punk rock as cinema gets; Godard at his most petulant. Whether you think the film is the work of a philistine or a genius, you can't deny it's enthralling. A manifesto smuggled in a car crash, King Lear may not be Godard's finest work, but it's arguably his most fascinating.


Have you ever found yourself resorting to adding an emoji at the end of a text message in order to get the correct tone across to the recipient? If so, you may find some sympathy for Godard's dismissal of language as an outdated form of communication in his 1987 'adaptation' of Shakespeare's King Lear.

It's difficult to think of a filmmaker less suited to bringing a work of the bard to the screen, but notorious mogul Menahem Golan, of Cannon Films fame, didn't see it this way. Cornering Godard at the Cannes Film Festival, Golan had the Swiss auteur sign an agreement on a hotel napkin to direct a King Lear adaptation. At this point, Golan and Cannon Films had become an industry joke, best known for a series of schlocky action movies starring Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, but Golan was determined to be taken seriously and set about throwing money at respected directors like John Frankenheimer, Franco Zeffirelli and John Cassavettes. Godard, it seemed , was a real coup for the Israeli, and Golan brought his friend Norman Mailer on as scriptwriter, with the intention of having Mailer essay the title role. Eager to work with such mavericks, talent like Molly Ringwald (one of Hollywood's biggest stars at this point) and Burgess Meredith signed on. Mailer's script is said to have re-imagined the play as a gangster melodrama, much like Baz Luhrmann would refashion Romeo & Juliet a decade later.


Things didn't go to Golan's plan however. Two days into the production, Mailer stormed off the Swiss set, flying back to the US and refusing to work with Godard. This was just the reaction Godard wanted, having no interest in bringing Mailer's script to the screen. Godard claims to have read two pages of Shakespeare's play before becoming enraged by its language ("To be or not to be? That's not really a question!", he famously spat in another dismissal of the English language's most celebrated writer). His frustration with Shakespeare's arcane text set Godard thinking about how outmoded language had become in the video age, and this would become the central theme of his King Lear.

What little plot the film can claim to have consists of William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth (theatre director Peter Sellars), a descendant of the writer, roaming around a European landscape in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. Aside from the human cost, the fallout has destroyed all existing literature, along with much of the English language itself. Willy the Fifth struggles to recollect once familiar words; "Cinema! That's a great word!", Godard has Sellars exclaim in one of the film's many cheeky lines of dialogue.


For many, such a dismissal of language and literature will play as little more than cretinism, but when I first saw King Lear as a teenager it played like a revolutionary bugle call. As a child I was an obsessive reader, but growing up in Ireland, a country that largely refused to take visual arts seriously thanks to its rich literary history, I gradually became tired of words and began to embrace images. It was refreshing to see a respected artist like Godard stand up for the art of cinema in the face of centuries of literary dominance.

I wouldn't go quite as far as Godard in dismissing language altogether - after all, it's how I communicate with my readers on a daily basis - but as a movie buff it's a joy to watch Godard wage war for the cause of the image.

The film is also very funny. In a blunt metaphor, Godard, playing a scientist named Professor Pluggy and wearing audio-visual cables like a cyberpunk Rastafarian, goads a youngster for attempting to create fire by rubbing two sticks together. Pluggy frowns and hands the young man a cigarette lighter - "This has been invented!" Later, the punkish two-fingered salute to writers continues when Professor Pluggy introduces a New York Times interviewer as a representative of 'The Arkansas Daily News'. Elsewhere, one of several intertitles announces the film as "A picture shot in the back".


The few actual lines of Shakespeare heard in the film are granted to Meredith and Ringwald, who look positively perplexed throughout, their scenes resembling sneakily filmed rehearsal footage. Equally uncomfortable is Woody Allen, who makes a puzzling cameo as a film editor towards the film's end, the New Yorker appearing every bit as confused as the audience at this point. The movie opens with footage of Mailer and his daughter, while Godard makes disparaging remarks in voiceover, sarcastically referring to Mailer as "The Great Writer".

This is about as punk rock as cinema gets; Godard at his most petulant. Whether you think the film is the work of a philistine or a genius, you can't deny it's enthralling. A manifesto smuggled in a car crash, King Lear may not be Godard's finest work, but it's arguably his most fascinating.


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