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.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

I should like to apologise that my output for the next few weeks is likely to be erratic, as I have family in town and have fewer opportunities for film-watching. I shall be attempting to keep my Godard director focus going, though it may be rather sporadic, even though I’m down to the last few films…


The narrative that tells of a revered filmmaker’s ‘long-awaited return to form’ is a familiar one with plenty of history in film reviewing — it crops up from time to time with respect to Jean-Luc Godard, whose work I’ve been focusing on over the last month — but nowhere is it more commonly heard than with whatever the latest Woody Allen flick is. He churns them out at such a rate even now he’s in his 70s, that inevitably there’s one every few years that is heralded as a return. The critical consensus, it appears, is that Blue Jasmine is one such, seeing Woody return to the States, albeit to the West coast city of San Francisco. I, however, remain solidly unconvinced, though I concede it is a well-made film at least.

On the matter of it being a ‘return to form’, I cannot really comment. I haven’t seen much that Woody’s put out in the last 10-15 years, though I’ve occasionally been tempted. That’s not to say I am some kind of resolutely anti-Allen grump hating on his every endeavour. I enjoyed Everyone Says I Love You (1996) quite a bit, and his early funny stuff is still rather watchable. That said, he has a mean, misanthropic streak in him. I remember it clearly in Deconstructing Harry (1997), an unflattering portrait of the artist, and it’s clear here too. It’s not a matter of happy endings or comedy, it’s a matter of an all-consuming malaise that seems to infect all his characters, a profoundly cynical Weltanschauung that all but overwhelms the very fragile comedies he constructs.

At the heart of Blue Jasmine is Jeanette, more commonly called Jasmine, a widowed New York socialite fallen on hard times, who has come to San Francisco to live with her sister as a desperate measure to reinvent herself, so she says, and because she is quite broke. Both of these reasons are ones we as viewers come to have some doubts about over the course of the film, but what I do not doubt is the excellence of Cate Blanchett’s performance in this role. She is required to affect evidence of profound mental turmoil — the kind of thing that Gena Rowlands did in her husband John Cassavetes‘s films, or that is reminiscent of protagonists in films by Douglas Sirk and Nick Ray in the 1950s, domestic characters driven into dementia by the pressures of the modern world. It’s always a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Blanchett does very well at it.

I am, however, less convinced by the way Allen orchestrates her fine performance. There always seem to be little jokes made at Jasmine’s expense — and there’s plenty of laughter in the auditorium throughout the film, it’s just rarely the uninhibited laughter of gag comedy, but the awkward and pained laughter at someone else’s profound distress. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Allen almost seems to be having fun with Jasmine’s difficulties, and much though she may be the kind of entitled upper-middle-class neurotic New Yorker with whom I should have no sympathies, it’s still troubling to watch her struggle through her situation. There are, as ever, other good actors too — Sally Hawkins as Jasmine’s sister Ginger and Alec Baldwin as her ex-husband Hal are only the most prominent — but their characters are such attenuated screenwriterly conceits that they don’t really seem to live and breathe. They certainly don’t convince as Californians: few of the characters are anything but New York through-and-through, though Ginger’s boyfriends stretch the geography as far as New Jersey, and Bobby Cannavale in particular (playing Chili), with his slicked-back hair, white vest and 50s style, suggests a pastiche of A Steetcar Named Desire (a play to which the plot also has some similarities). Probably most interesting of the lot, though, is Andrew Dice Clay’s brief turn as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie — still a Jersey type, but somehow more believable in his barely-repressed anger at the way his life has turned out — and perhaps the actor’s own drift into semi-obscurity from the heights of his late-80s fame gives his resurrection here a little more pathos.

It’s all put together with the bygone charm of the traditionalist, from its jazz-inflected opening notes and the warm hues of Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography, to the clean framing and restrained camerawork. The structure rather effectively interweaves the present storyline in San Francisco with Jasmine’s New York life. And yet, still am I made to feel uneasy by Allen’s jaundiced view of the world, which always has such brittle characters so unequal (or perhaps unmatched) to their environments. Still, I suspect those who already know they love Woody will find a lot to enjoy here. For myself, it’s all a bit too mannered.

Blue Jasmine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Woody Allen; Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe; Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 2 October 2013.