Honoring a contract written on a cocktail napkin two years earlier, in 1987 Jean-Luc Godard made a version of King Lear with Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer and Burgess Meredith. And as absurd as that sentence sounds, the film itself is an equally bizarre spectacle. The result was so controversial it has never been released on Region 1 home video, despite its inherent starpower. But now thanks to DirecTV’s Cinémoi channel, North American viewers finally have a chance to experience it. Or, depending on your point-of-view, endure it.
The story - such as it is - bears little resemblance to the classic play. Godard’s premise is all the world’s great art has been destroyed by the Chernobyl disaster. A descendent of Shakespeare (played by Peter Sellars, the now famous avant-garde theatre director) roams the Swiss countryside trying to jog the plays and sonnets of his esteemed ancestor from his subconscious memory. The overheard conversations of a gruff gangster (Meredith) vacationing with his daughter (Ringwald) help the younger Shakespeare reassemble some of Lear’s piecemeal dialogue, while a screenwriter (Mailer) hears the complaints of the film’s producer (Menahem Golan, in what was likely an actual telephone conversation).
In an interview, Peter Sellars claimed that Godard only read the first three and the last two pages of Lear in preparation for the film. The gaps are filled with frequent digressions into the murky behind the scenes drama of making the film and utterly incomprehensible woodland set pieces reminiscent of Weekend. Typical for his 1980s films, Godard has a hefty cameo, this time as a mysterious professor clad in a Rastafarian wig adorned with video cables.
Eventually the whole mess - and it really is a mess with miles of unspooled film - is dumped on Woody Allen to edit into coherency. Allen pieces together an assembly using safety pins and a sewing kit to literally stitch the film together. While screening his handiwork, Allen appears consumed by Shakespeare’s ghost and begins reciting the play’s poetic dialogue verbatim.
The most accurate title for this film would have been Contempt, but Godard had already used that 25 years earlier. King Lear is awash in contempt; contempt for audiences, contempt for art and contempt for the procedures and protocols of movie-making. But Godard’s most bilious contempt is reserved for his producers, The Cannon Group. Formerly Golan-Globus Productions, The Cannon Group has always walked an odd tight rope between art and exploitation, randomly sticking a few high brow productions in its massive catalogue of low-rent sleaze epics. Godard, keenly aware he was being used - and vice versa - finds numerous ways to trash his benefactors. Frequent title cards “crediting” The Cannon Group - usually during the film’s most disjointed scenes - leave little doubt as to Godard’s opinion. Allen discusses his certainty that the film will be a major hit for “The Cannon Group - Cultural Division” while Godard flashes a title card that claims the company is based in The Bahamas.
Richard Brody, chief film critic of The New Yorker magazine and unabashed Godard fan-boy, calls King Lear the greatest film ever made. Shock hyperbole to be sure, but not as wildly absurd a claim as one might think. The film approaches the predatory vagaries of the art/commerce relationship in a highly confrontational way and explores the constant tension between producers and directors - and directors and their medium - with stark frankness. Its surrounding swirl of pretension and confusion is mere ornament, like a shoddy house constructed of wet sand covered with those fake stones they sell at Home Depot. It is a film beyond the experience of even this jaded reviewer and quantifying it with a star rating is a fool’s task. King Lear may not be the greatest film ever made, but it's undoubtedly the Godardist.