The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #64: King Lear (1987)

Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

64. Jean Luc Goddard’s King Lear (1987)

In 1987, Jean Luc Goddard answered the question everyone was asking: what if Jean Luc Goddard was haunted by seagulls and made a meta-cinematic fever dream about the history of film, fine art, and literature that occasionally thought about (or thought about thinking about) a post-apocalyptic King Lear in Switzerland starring Burgess Meredith as a gangster and Molly Ringwald—obviously—as Cordelia.

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I presume some of you have been asking that question a lot, too, so you’re welcome.

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A straightforward post-apocalyptic Swiss Lear starring Meredith and Ringwald would probably have been sublime—but that noisy invisible seagull got on my fucking nerves, dear reader.

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Even more annoying than the goddamned seagull or crow or whatever squawking bird it was that wouldn’t shut the fuck up was Goddard compulsively groaning and mumbling as one of the narrators or the director talking about what is going on, or otherwise blue-skying about a movie that is already fucking underway.

I would say that this is King Lear deconstructed, except there isn’t enough Lear in it.

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Peter Sellars (the controversial stage director) shows up as William Shakespeare, Jr V trying to reimagine the bard’s body of work through a constipated form of intuition and an uneasy dose of eavesdropping. In his wanderings across a desolated, but pleasant enough landscape, he meets the gangster and his daughter, which he sees as fortuitous. Soon he stumbles upon Goddard, as the professor. He is wearing a wig of dreadlocks constructed largely of AV wiring.

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The impeccable Julie Delpy irons Jean Luc Goddard’s shirt. “When the professor farts,” she later says of the director, “the mountains are trembling.” This is what Lear’s storm has been reduced to. This is the least funny fart joke in the history of fart jokes, gentle readers. The fart didn’t even sound funny, although the sound of faraway thunder was almost impressive (and in a clearer aural film, it would have been).

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Did I mention the film’s action begins with Norman Mailer, apparently working on the script?

Mailer. Oh, yes. That is a good way to begin, ha ha.

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If you are a fan of the tragedy, and want to watch a film that engages with the text without enacting it in any sensible way, then this is the movie for you.

This King Lear really hammers on and on about how nothing is no thing, and through so much repetition it is really persuasive.

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In Shakespeare’s play, the elderly king wants to retire and decides to mete out his kingdom into three quadrants for each of his daughters so that there would be no fight for succession upon his death, and makes a condition of these gifts that they proclaim how much they love him. Because this a tragedy, things do not go according to plan. His oldest two daughters flatter him, and his youngest daughter will not participate because her love transcends the words she has to use, especially since her two sisters have so degraded language. The old king doesn’t grasp that truly deep feelings are difficult, if not impossible to express.

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Love exists beyond language, and beyond power.

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Before Mailer appears, there are playful captions on a black screen about the permeable state of this project while we listen to a very breathy telephone conversation in which producer Menahem Golan gripes about the prestige of the Cannon film company being damaged by the delays to the release of the film, and how the film must be ready for the Cannes Film Festival that year. An intermediary on the telephone asks Goddard to respond, and he responds by beginning the movie.

Is this film an angry fuck-you to the commerce of art, like Lou Reed’s noise masterpiece, Metal Machine Music?

Or is it a playfully earnest engagement with the tensions of entertaining people while insisting that the meaning of art is elusive?

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The film ends with Woody Allen editing his own version of King Lear with William Shakespeare, Jr. V, and by his description of it, we know that his film is somehow the impossible result of the film we have just watched. There is a linear sense here, if not a logical one.

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At times, the scenes are affecting, and the film is layered enough so that re-watching it does add to its meaning. But the film seems to laugh too much at its own jokes.

And those fucking seagulls filled me with rage.


John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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