King Lear (1987)

It’s not uncommon for one to praise the ravishing cinematography even in films one doesn’t understand, but although there is some fine imagery in King Lear, by this point in Godard’s career — after a period in the 1970s co-authoring films with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during which they seemingly resisted all kinds of ‘professionalism’ — it is Godard’s soundtracks which are most apt to be called beautiful. The distinctive reliance on texts now manifests as overlapping layers of spoken word, washing over the soundtrack like the Swiss lake by which this film is shot — primarily the recitation of Shakespeare by a stentorian voice, sometimes at the same time as Burgess Meredith’s Don Learo or Molly Ringwald’s Cordelia are speaking the same lines, though sounds of nature and of seagulls vie too for our attention from all sides. The plot, such as it is, has Peter Sellars (the theatre director, not the actor) as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s works after some vague Chernobyl-related calamity has befallen the planet. Godard himself steps in as a Shakespearean fool/savant, Professor Pluggy, with cables for a wig, farting ostentatiously, and muttering out of the side of his mouth. It’s not that this is exactly an adaptation of Shakespeare, so much as a play on the idea of authorship (“a cLEARing” as one of the film’s interchangeable subtitles has it), and a grand thumbing of the nose to great traditions (whether of cinema or theatre). It also looks forward a little bit to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma with its use of overlapping film images and oblique commentary. One of Godard’s finest films of the 80s.

Screening alongside the feature is a short film from the year before, Meetin’ WA, in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, though it’s unclear the extent to which this is staged. The encounter is at times awkward, with Godard leading Allen down some rambling metaphorical lanes regarding the radioactivity of television and its effect on Allen’s own filmmaking, and when Allen’s answers don’t seem interesting to him, he fades out the volume or slows down the speed, or irises in (the film starts with an empty black hole over Allen’s head), or smash cuts to an intertitle and a burst of jazz. It’s a comic short, really, in which it’s Godard as the director who is the comedian rather than Allen as the subject.

King Lear (1987)CREDITS
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 22 February 2016.

King Lear (1987)
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux; Starring Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard; Length 90 minutes.

Meetin’ WA (1986)
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Pierre Binggeli; Starring Woody Allen; Length 26 minutes.

Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray, aka Summer, 1986)

I’ve by no means seen enough films by French New Wave director Éric Rohmer to judge where this 1986 film, one of his ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series, fits into his œuvre, but I’m given to understand it heralds a move away from formalism towards something freer and a little bit spontaneous. Certainly, that fits with the later films of his I’ve seen (primarily the ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’), and there’s something almost artless about the filming and lighting here, done with a minimal crew on a 16mm camera that in (the relatively infrequent) indoor scenes is pushed towards an ugly graininess, and which at times suggests a vérité documentary quality (as when the kids look directly into the camera). But this, along with the film’s largely improvised dialogue (for which the lead actor Marie Rivière received an assistant screenwriting credit), is all part of a very conscious style that may not come across as much initially, but builds to a fascinating character study of a woman who seems to be dealing with depression, on the occasions when she reflects on her life and her failed relationships.

All this, though, comes in the details; the film feels light and airy in the way that its central character Delphine aspires to be. The film is structured as a series of dialogues with friends, family members and those she meets on her holiday travels, interspersed with scenes of her on her own, in Paris where she lives and on her vacances in Cherbourg and Biarritz. In the discussions, references are made to various new-agey philosophies and ways of living and connecting with others and with one’s spiritual self, and Delphine tries (albeit unsuccessfully) to articulate something of these, most notably in a lunchtime scene as she expresses her dislike for eating meat — still something of a minority position on the European continent, it must be said. Her happiness, though, seems to remain predicated on her lack of a boyfriend figure, or at least so those around her keep trying to tell her (Delphine avers she has one, but her friends are quite aware she is clinging to the memory of a failed relationship). Men certainly move around her, and the camera takes note of these periodically, but she largely pushes them away — and for good reason, whatever her friends may say, as they are variously rather aggressive or unpleasant.

What the film captures particularly well is this social interaction that continues to make Delphine feel like a failure because she’s unattached. The green ray of the title (an optical phenomenon that occurs at sunset) appears to be just another semi-mystical idea that Delphine wants to believe in — that seeing it will allow a person to find clarity — and Rohmer leaves it unresolved at the end whether it does, though there seems at least to be hope for her. It’s this, perhaps most of all, that makes the film ultimately a ‘comedy’, even if there are plenty of tears along the way.

The Green Ray film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux; Starring Marie Rivière; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.