The radioactivity dispersed by the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant plunged the world into apocalypse, ending civilization and wiping out its hallmark, art, which therefore had to be reinvented, reconstructed. William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth (played by stage director Peter Sellars) is thus at work restoring his ancestor’s plays.
The premise of Jean-Luc Godard’s film of King Lear, in English, befits the peril in which art finds itself, according to Godard. (Godard, Sellars, Tom Luddy, Richard Debuisne and Norman Mailer contributed to the script.) Toying with it himself here, Godard equates commercialism with radioactive danger. One of the film’s secondary titles is “Power vs. Virtue”—although later reference is made to “the power of virtue” in relation to the reinvention of images: visual art, that is, such as painting, sculpture, cinema. Godard’s film juggles Shakespeare’s play, insights into the play (Cordelia’s silence on the matter of her love for him confronts her father with her presence, her “exactitude”), Mailer’s supposed recasting of the play as a gangster saga, the making of this film (including the deal behind it that has made this possible), and a plethora of ruminations on images. Dramatic scenes, voiceovers (including readings from the play) and even a mini-art documentary are all part of Godard’s haunting tapestry. It stuns how much, moreover, comes through of the emotional power of Shakespeare’s most massively moving, and bleakest, tragedy. (This perhaps refutes Sellars’ claim, perhaps proffered as a joke, that Godard had read only a few pages at the front and the back of Shakespeare’s text.)
Barbaric and melancholy, but also imbued with suggestions of rebirth, the Swiss seaside setting, punctuated by squawking seagulls, suits the theme of an ending spurring a “new” beginning—one attempting to recapture elements of the past.
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