Godard's King Lear: Referents Provided upon Request

By Maerz, Jessica M. | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Godard's King Lear: Referents Provided upon Request


Maerz, Jessica M., Literature/Film Quarterly


I. Art Imitates Life: The Fragmentation of Lear

Jean-Luc Godard's 1987 King Lear is a film whose back-story is the stuff of legend. King Lear takes to an extreme Godard's signature tactic of alluding, in the context of a completed film, to the conditions of that film's production; here, Godard goes so far as to figure the film's back-story significantly in the "text" of the film. As the story goes, Godard and Cannon Films producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus drew up a contract on the proverbial napkin at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival.1 Cannon Films, the producers of Death Wish II (1982) and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977), expected a prestige production, with Godard helming a team that would involve Norman Mailer as lead actor and writer of a Mafia-inflected script, along with his daughter Kate. Production on the film was delayed for a year, with Godard as well as his producers registering dissatisfaction with the final project; in fact, Godard's film opens with a recorded phone conversation wherein a Cannon representative demands delivery of the finished film. Similarly, there were problems between Godard and his star actor/writer: Kate and Norman Mailer left the set after one day of shooting (a day characterized by, as Godard describes in voice-over during the film, "a ceremony of foul behavior"), although Godard incorporated into the film's final cut two versions of a long take with his original leads. With a defiant intertitle declaring King Lear to be "A Film Shot in the Back," and with multiple references to the film's troubled history, Godard foregrounds the conditions of production that so drastically fragmented his film. King Lear, a film that is primarily "about" the reconstruction of lost masterpieces, becomes in this respect a Godardian meditation on the impossibility of resurrecting his film from its disastrous beginnings.

Beyond its troubled origins, King Lear, an extremely free adaptation of Shakespeare's play, is an odd and strangely disjointed film. Set in a postapocalyptic world wherein "movies, and more generally art, have been lost and do not exist," King Lear loosely recounts William Shakespeare Jr. V's attempt to reconstruct the lost works of his ancestor; he is aided unwittingly in this quest by Don Learo (an aging mobster) and his daughter Cordelia, who seem to be "living" the script of Shakespeare's play without being aware of it. William is (somewhat) wittingly aided by a Prof. Pluggy (played by the filmmaker himself), who is similarly attempting to revive the art of cinema. Received poorly by film critics and Shakespeare critics alike, the film has drawn little of the close analysis, theorization, and explication that other Godard films attract.

On the heels of his Je Vous Salue Marie (1985), Godard's Lear recasts some of the narrative and stylistic strategies that characterize the earlier film:

Godard seem[s] to be saying goodbye to one style of filmmaking-dispensing with plot, characterization, narrative drive, ordinary structures of aural and visual montage, sets, camera movement, in short, most of the functions of classical cinema-to create a series of cinematic meditations for his own edification and spiritual survival. (Dixon 176)

Wheeler Winston Dixon here overstates, to some degree, the similarity between the two films. Godard in Lear pushes many of these strategies-particularly the more disjunctive ones-to their extreme end; the symbology and iconography that can be, with difficulty, unraveled in Marie become increasingly personalized, stylized, and opaque in Lear. Although there is, as Peter Donaldson notes, an element of risk involved in "imposing a factious unity on a work that flaunts its lack of unity and closure" (192), certain underlying structures and impulses in this disjointed film do seem to draw together its disparate narrative strands. Godard's King Lear works, in its narrative discourse as well as its style, to provide a critical reflection on its own subject matter and process: Godard's film enacts theory. …

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