King Lear

By James Norton

king-lear-jean-luc-godard.jpgKing Lear, 1987

Hi James – how's the King Lear piece coming along? (Text message from Robert Chilcott, Vertigo)

The origin of King Lear, a contract signed on a napkin by Godard and Menahem Golan of Cannon Films at the 1985 Cannes festival, is as famous as the film itself, rarely seen, by reputation a cinematic car crash, an act of sabotage in response to a commercial stunt. Golan and Yoram Globus' Cannon Films reputation was for action schlock. Chuck Norris was their biggest star. But at the time of the Godard deal they had also begun investing in respectable auteur projects such as Cassavetes' final masterpiece Love Streams and Konchalovsky's film of Kurosawa's script Runaway Train (coincidentally Kurosawa's version of King Lear, Ran, opened shortly after the Godard deal). Godard wasn't therefore on paper a radical departure for the company and the proposed project was an appetising one: a script by Norman Mailer, who would also play Lear, with Woody Allen as the Fool. What's not to like? Godard's most recent feature, Detective, boasted a starry cast led by Johnny Hallyday and was a genre homage of sorts, so Cannon had grounds for trusting Godard to keep his end of the deal. But a betrayal is what they got.

A betrayal of the producers, of the audience, of Shakespeare (who really doesn't mind), but not of Godard, despite the King Lear's subtitle: "a film shot in the back". Betrayal as one of the pervasive themes of the play. Betrayal of image by sound. Godard bites the hand that feeds him from the outset. The film begins in darkness with the recording of a desperate Golan telephoning to ask when the film will be ready: "Cannon has announced for a year and a half the Jean-Luc Godard movie King Lear. I must insist that this movie, as promised, will reach the Cannes festival!" The call continues over a weeping angel by Giotto. Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world, and all our woe. A sacrifice of innocence. Godard deconstructs the validity of the contract, a tissue of lies. "Words are one thing, and reality is another thing, and in between is no thing" sundering the play's most important word. Nothing will come of nothing. Is this a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying no thing? There follows the constructive dismissal of star and scenarist, as in a repeated take Mailer and his daughter in "a ceremony of star behaviour" perusing a script refuse the insinuations of incest that are asked of them and walk off the picture.

"I always thought the mafia is the only way to do King Lear": Mailer leaves us with this one damned good idea, although surprisingly it hadn't been done, apart from as a theatrical conceit until Richard Harris' ageing godfather in My Kingdom, several years into the future of its director Don Boyd, who at the time of King Lear was producing... Godard's contribution to the portmanteau film Aria. Coincidence? Probably.

The objection to King Lear is that it is a provocative, incoherent and unwatchable farrago by a director who had not read the play. The film is set on the Swiss shore of Lake Geneva, at a resort hotel in Nyon and at Godard's studio in nearby Rolle. Characterisation is respected up to a point with Burgess Meredith as Don Learo, an Italian title belying Godard's lengthy digression into Jewish mobster lore, and Molly Ringwald, who had played Miranda in Paul Mazursky's modern adaptation of The Tempest, perhaps the kind of thing Cannon were hoping for, as Cordelia. But Godard's intentions are announced plainly enough from the start as "an approach" to King Lear in a series of typically graphic titles, in English, as is the film's dialogue.

Fear and loathing

Godard's King Lear is the work of a trickster, a prankster, a shape shifter. Its cast is packed with surrogates, not only Meredith and Ringwald substituting for the Mailers, but surrogates for Shakespeare and Godard himself. The film's high concept premise is this: after Chernobyl art and movies have been lost and must be reinvented. In Meetin' WA, the interview with Woody Allen filmed in the run-up to this production, Godard compares the effect of television to radiation poisoning. Tricksters, surrogates and mutants. Shock-headed theatrical enfant terrible Peter Sellars plays William Shakespeare the Fifth, who is to undertake this task of post-apocalyptic cultural restoration, guided by the scarcely coherent shaman Professor Pluggy, played by Godard festooned with video cable dreadlocks. Making up the weird trio as Edgar is another wunderkind, Leos Carax, at that moment the brightest hope of young French cinema, some time before his dazzling talent was stifled or dissipated. How prescient, then, that in the Folio text the last line of the play, uttered again here, is given to Edgar: "We that are young, shall never see so much, nor live so long." And at the end of the film, finally, the Fool, "Mr. Alien", Woody Allen appears, stitching together the film in his editing room. Godard at work in his studio seems to be channelling Hunter S. Thompson, the shades, the garbled drawl, hunched not over a typewriter but an editing table, the process of "handling the present, future and past", taking a childish delight in the primordial stuff of cinema, reassembling the petals of a flower by running the film backwards, a hermetic disquisition on theological montage...

A study

The image is a pure creation of the soul. It cannot be born of the comparison but of a reconciliation of two realities that are more or less far apart. The more the connection between these two realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be, the more it will have emotive power. Two realities that have no connection cannot be drawn together usefully. There is no creation of an image. One rarely obtains forces and power from this opposition... An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic, but because the association of ideas is distant and true... Analogy is a medium of creation. It is a resemblance of connections. The power or virtue of the created image depends on the nature of these connections. What is great is not the image but the emotion that it provokes. If the latter is great, one esteems the image at its measure. The emotion thus provoked is true because it is born outside of all imitation, all evocation and all resemblance. – Jean-Luc Godard, King Lear, 1987

An approach

Analogist thinking aims at making present networks of correspondence between discontinuous elements, which implies multiplying the components of the image and demonstrating their relations. However exact the representation of details may be, it is not so much an attempt to accurately imitate a 'natural' objectively given prototype, but rather to reconstruct the web of affinities within which this prototype takes meaning. – Philippe Descola, The Making of Images, Musée du Quai Branly, 2010

A clearing

Godard is the most romantic of filmmakers. The irrepressible sparkle and haunted intellectual torment of his young lovers, the defiant Utopian folly of his politics, his mock-heroic death scenes, the plangent strength of his music, Anna Karina... À Bout de Souffle, Le Mépris, Pierrot le Fou: are there any more romantic films than these? Late Godard has been described as his "cosmic phase", his attention tuned to the mystery of the image, a dialogue with nature; the questioning spirituality of Je Vous Salue, Marie; the rapt and sensual contemplation of the natural world in Nouvelle Vague, above all its limpid imagery of water; the glittering Mediterranean of the early films the same as the mythic sea of Film Socialisme; and here the idyllic calm of Lake Geneva. King Lear is Godard's most Romantic film with a capital R. The original stuff, German Romanticism. Godard had been here before, notably with the beautiful line from Novalis cited in Bande à Part: "If the world becomes a dream, the dream in turn becomes a world." King Lear embraces this Romanticism wholeheartedly, specifically the sublime tableaux of Caspar David Friedrich, his forests and mountains, The Wanderer above the Mists restaged as an Arthurian funeral scene looking out over the lake, the film's final scenes combining Molly Ringwald bound to a tree as Joan of Arc with a reading of the rapturous embrace of death that closes Virginia Woolf's The Waves, a scene included in Godard's contribution to the portmanteau film Ten Minutes Older: The Cello. "Clearing" here has the sense of the key term used by that late Romantic Heidegger of a space in which an idea or entity can reveal itself, a space, like the film or the play King Lear, where anything that contributes to being can happen. But Lake Geneva was a locus Romanticus for the English too, the crucible of Frankenstein, the Lake Leman where Byron punningly complained of "lemancholy", the Gothic, smoke on the water...

No thing

Thierry Jousse has remarked: "There are very few filmmakers that can be immediately identified by ear. Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson [pictures of whom appear in the film], Jean-Luc Godard. But of the four, Godard is without doubt the only one for whom the expression 'univers sonore' can have a meaning." Never one to miss a trick, Godard plucks from the text "look with thine ears" and throws in the title lEAR. Although the competition is formidable, the sound design of King Lear is the most richly realised of his oeuvre, and deserves a separate CD release, as ECM have done for Nouvelle Vague and Histoire(s) du Cinema. Jonathan Rosenbaum has testified that "it has the most remarkable use of Dolby sound I have ever heard in a film" but the film is shown so seldom and practically never with this system that makes clear "the multiple separations needed for Godard's split, staggered, and overlapping channels – which play a variety of tricks with distance, space, depth, and layered aural textures."[1] These include the film's dialogue, recorded readings from the play (King Lire?), in some cases these not so much echo but shadow each other as the timbre of different voices and accents blend and play off each other, a lurking undercurrent of music that occasionally breaks the surface, and the sounds of nature, impossible not to anthropomorphise, impossible too not to hear as nature's utter indifference to humanity: the derisive snort of pigs and the seraphic anguish of the seagull's cry which repeatedly punctuates the film and is the last sound we hear over the final Romantic pieta... The effect is of 3D in sound. From the Croisette to Lake Geneva, a film that was begun on a beach ends on a beach. And the most beautiful sound of this most beautiful of Godard's films, the gentle lapping of the waves.

Whether rising to the challenge of the monumental play or seizing the opportunity to play the teasing farceur against a corporate antagonist, King Lear is Godard's masterpiece of the '80s, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

The waves broke on the shore.


[1] Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1988) The Importance of Being Perverse (Godard’s King Lear) in The Chicago Reader 8 April, (accessed 4 July 2011)

James Norton is a researcher and producer of arts and history documentaries. He likes the sea, the mountains and the city.