New York

Jean-Luc Godard, King Lear

Jean-Luc Godard’s new film, King Lear, 1987, is first and foremost an “approach,” as its intertitles frequently remind us. At one point, in the guise of a shaman/professor, the director says, “An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic, but because it is distant and true.” Thus, the aim of the film, like most of Godard’s work, is to approximate the subject/text rather than to limit it. The intertitles, the sketchiness, the home-movie quality, the deliberately fractured narrative of King Lear are linked to a persistent esthetic. Like Two or Three Things That I Know About Her, 1966, Le Gai Savoir, 1968, or Vladimir and Rosa, 1970, it is constructed along the lines of an essay that foregrounds the process of viewing a film. Conceived in this manner, these films include both hits and misses, true and false starts.

Thus, King Lear opens with a failed sequence featuring Norman Mailer and his daughter Kate. Clearly, they and Godard are going through the motions in an attempt to locate a modern parallel for the Lear/Cordelia relationship. After ten minutes, the sequence grinds to a halt and we move on to another scene. We are introduced to William Shakespeare Jr. V, played by Peter Sellars, who is “trying to recover the work of his ancestor.” While this approach represents the heart of the film, the inclusion of the Mailer sequences and other detours are perhaps more representative of Godard’s unique handling of film narrative.

Time after time, Godard chooses the indirect approach as a means of achieving the “distant and true” image. He was talking about “returning to zero” as far back as 1968, the year of the student revolts in Paris. Godard views that starting point as an eternal point of embarkation, for he returns to it at the beginning of each film. Every text must be approached in the same manner. Like the Sellars/Shakespeare character, Godard is constantly in search of his own cinematic ancestry, trying to isolate a “just” relationship between sound and image.

Because of the insistently reflexive nature of his films, Godard often deals heavily in appropriation. King Lear is no exception. The text of Lear and the relationship between the father and daughters is merely a point of departure for Godard. When Sellars/Shakespeare is eating in a restaurant and overhears a conversation at the next table between a father and daughter, he intermittently takes notes while sipping his soup. The dialogue is, of course, a scene from the play. Here, Lear is played by Burgess Meredith and Cordelia by Molly Ringwald. For Godard, as for Shakespeare, all texts are appropriated in order to be reread and situated within new contexts.

The down side of Godard’s hit-and-miss approach is that the moments of exhilarating discovery are frequently followed by moments of staggering puerility and obviousness. In King Lear, most of these misses revolve around the figure of Godard himself. He has constructed a film in which one finds a multiplicity of texts and voices. When his own voice takes on an authorial role—whether ironic or not—it stops the film in its tracks.

Despite these lapses, however, King Lear provides us with another example of why Godard has remained such a radical figure in the world of cinema and popular culture since 1960. When the narrator describes the film’s events as taking place “after Chernobyl, . . . a time in which movies and art no longer exist,” the statement could also describe Godard’s entire body of work. He makes cinema, and makes us see it, as if it were on the eve of its own discovery.

Michael Tarantino