The term “underrated” applies doubly to Jean-Luc Godard’s post-Weekend career: it is, in the United States, scarcely written about in any capacity, and when someone deigns to consider it, the reviews tend to be dismissive, falling back on meaningless buzzwords like “obscure” and “pretentious” (a word often employed with a dangerous lack of irony by posturing reviewers). That “underrated” should hold two meanings for Godard is fitting, though: nothing in his post-’67 career exists in a void. It’s instead all subjected to various dialectical contrasts and deliberations. Images and thoughts fragment, and only the editing can pull them back together to create new meaning. In some cases, as in Letter to Jane, an hour can be spent digging into the persona, historical and social context of a single image.
King Lear, released to no fanfare in 1987, stands as Godard’s densest feature-length explication of these radicalized approaches. Its soundtrack is an impenetrably layered collage of noise, of overlapping dialogue, natural sounds and, endlessly, the amped up squawk of seagulls. This wash of noise complements the jumbled assembly of images, which look as disjointed as the dialogue sounds, with shots ending before one can get a clear understanding of them and disparate locations and scenarios bridged only through editing.
As the title would imply, the film is a retelling of Shakespeare’s play, but then again it isn’t. It is not even, despite an opening that shows abortive footage of Norman Mailer rehearsing lines before leaving the set to return home, even an account of the making of a film about King Lear. Rather, Godard aims higher, focusing on what it means to even make a film, especially one that seeks to adapt a pre-existing work of art. Then again, as Godard contends in an on-screen appearance as the mysterious “Professor,” one cannot even create an image. The image itself exists in reality, and what we refer to as an image is merely our means of recording an image “created,” regardless of planning or blocking, simply by the naturally occurring world. The “image,” then, is a subjective motion, not a documentation of fact, and it can be interpreted in any fashion.
Godard’s Lear, then, is not about the hassle of pulling off a film production but of the moral conundrum an artist must face when making art. To better emphasize the near-impossibility of true adaptation of art or honesty of image, the director sets the film in the wake of a Chernobyl-inspired apocalypse, in which everything more or less stabilized after a period of chaos. Everything, that is, except for art and culture, somehow lost in the terror. Godard announces the void early, as his main character thumbs through a picture book of auteurs. No text adorns the pages, merely photographs of Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and others, masters now simply known for being masters. The moment could be Godard’s joke on the misuse of auteurism, in which the name now matters more than the films attached and an acceptance of such filmmakers as true artists has now eclipsed the need to discuss their art.
The man reading said book is William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth (Peter Sellars), tasked by the Queen of England to recreate his ancestor’s work. But in the absence of the original text, William must try and get down the speech and plot by eavesdropping on conversations and drawing his own connections through wordplay and guesswork. That may not sound like much to go on, but Godard devotes all of the film’s form to reflecting the search for meaning and narrative, to the point that title cards routinely flash throughout the film (including multiple displays of “The End,” that both show how hard it is to find a conclusion and likely infuriate those wishing to leave) and William does not openly state his ostensibly straightforward mission until 45 minutes into a 90-minute film. There are no people hunched over typewriters pulling out their hair, but at all times King Lear has the maddening feel of a work coming together, with all of the edit marks and shifted paragraphs included as if the film were constructed in real time, despite its flurry of dissociative editing.
But still Godard returns to deeper matters, concerned not only with the act of interpretation but the responsibility that comes with such power. Consider the alteration of Cordelia’s crucial response of “Nothing” to “No thing.” On one hand, it’s an amusing switch-up, vexing Lear no longer with a pun but semiotics. But that shift also marks the greatest point of diversion between texts: Shakespeare’s cleverness and complex wordplay buries equally thorny human dynamics and relationships, while Godard’s obfuscation calls attention to the word(s) itself, the contours of space around its syllables and, fundamentally, the basic building blocks of each word. When William meets Godard’s Professor, the director lives up to his character’s namesake by instructing young Shakespeare to show, not tell. But in Godard’s world, one cannot show unless one knows what to tell. Ever since 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Godard’s films increasingly set out to broaden the confines of cinema, and even dialectic, using the latter to open up the vast spaces in between either/or oppositions. King Lear, set in a world in which the loss of art, our relation to the reality, has altered reality to the point that art can perhaps no longer be gleaned from it, is as close as the director had yet come to admitting defeat. It is also a precursor to critiques of his ‘90s work and particularly the mammoth Histoire(s) du Cinéma, which struggled to reconcile a belief in cinema with the art form’s failures to avert colossal human tragedy.
Even so, this is not a despairing work, and is in fact one of Godard’s funniest. Its deft editing (both image and sound) employs jokes from the start, as when a taped phone call with Godard’s real producers ends with one asking for the director’s input before the sound cuts to him calling “Action!” on a shot. His Professor, a man gone mad in the editing booth and now adorned with A/V cables snaking into his head as if the machines were claiming him as their own, is a more concise, scathing parody of the director’s image than any of his detractors could muster, and Godard even throws in a fart joke to tease himself more. This is also his most moving film, a brilliant artist operating on an advanced level nevertheless admitting his shortcomings: how the more he learns, the more ignorant he feels. In what may be the single most beautiful scene in Godard’s filmography (the competition is stiffer than some might think), Godard violates his own dictum on the impossibility of creating an image, using reverse photography to reassemble plucked flowers. The effort costs the Professor his life, Godard’s body is replaced by a reel of film to be preserved. Naturally, two interpretations arise: that this is the ultimate display of narcissism and self-martyrdom, or that Godard, arguably the most authorial of auteurs, finds solace in the Death of the Author. Then, Godard pushes beyond the distinction, bridging a work of great individual thought and design to its ultimate dissemination out into the world. The price for creation can be devastating, but the created survives, and that is all that matters.