King Lear (1987), Jean-Luc Godard (director)

Zoey Baldwin

An Attempt to Wade Through Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear

Before watching Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear, I was a bit wary of the film’s length. How on earth did Godard manage to condense Shakespeare’s seventh-longest play into 90 minutes?

In short: he didn’t. Godard’s 1987 adaptation hardly resembles the Bard’s original work. But I don’t think that was the director’s intention. French cinema’s most revered, revolutionary (and occasionally reviled) filmmaker turned a tragic piece of theatre into an exploration of art as a whole. Which works in theory, but in execution is dense and bewildering.

Godard’s rendition is set in a post-Chernobyl world. All traces of art have been destroyed. Peter Sellars (not to be confused with the Peter Sellers of Dr. Strangelove fame) plays William Shakesper Junior the Fifth, a Bard descendant who has been charged with restoring the work of his ancestor. (Yes, the spelling of Shakespeare is off, but I looked it up on IMDb and apparently this is what the director intended.)

In a parallel and occasionally overlapping storyline, a woman named Cordelia (Molly Ringwald) and her father, a Russian mobster named Mr. Learo (Norman Mailer) are at a coastal resort. Shakesper appears to be in and out of the same resort, and Cordelia’s relationship with her father inspires him. Shakesper borrows words from their conversations (which he creeps on in cafés) to craft the lines in his restored King Lear. After a while, however, we are not sure whether Cordelia exists, or if Shakesper has invented her.

He sums up Cordelia’s relationship with her father in a way that mirrors my own confusion about the film: “Obviously this man was power. Obviously this girl was virtue. They’re fighting. I don’t know what the issue is.”\

Most of what has been preserved of Shakespeare’s Lear exists in the film in the form of voiceover. Many lines are uttered in the film, sometimes simultaneously, often behind unmatching images. Lear’s “You must bear with me, I am old and foolish” (Act IV, sc. vii) and the fool’s “Have more than thou showest, / Speak less than thou knowest, / Lend less than thou owest, / Ride more than thou goest, / Learn more than thou trowest, / Set less than thou throwest” (Act I, sc. iv) make eerie appearances. The words are often presented in an ominous fashion, whispering behind images of flickering candles and medieval paintings of angels.

Another aspect of the film that must be addressed is the narrative device of tableaus. Occasionally, words will flash across the screen: “King Lear : A Study,” “3 Journeys into King Lear,” “King Lear: Fear and Loathing,” “Nothing”  and “No Thing” are a few that we see.  These devices are used to mimic the human thought process of rediscovery, perhaps.

The idea of “nothing” and silence is a major concept throughout the film. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the king is old and has decided to divide up his kingdom amongst his three daughters. He will give the largest portion of the kingdom to the daughter who most convincingly swears her love. Goneril and Regan sing their father’s praises, but Cordelia, the youngest daughter, says nothing. The Godard film focuses largely on this notion.

The Shakesper character sums up the weight of Cordelia’s refusal to suck up to her father quite nicely. He describes her silence as “a violent silence”: “But Cordelia is not mute. It’s not that she hasn’t said anything. She has said nothing. No thing. Everything that conspires and organizes itself around her silence, that wants to silence her silence, this produces violence.”

There is also a segment of the movie (which is not in any kind of logical order) where Shakesper journeys into the woods and meets a man named Edgar (Leos Carax), another Lear character, sitting by the water. Edgar and his girlfriend Virginia (Julie Delpy) aid Shakesper on his path to discovery. It seems like these two people are meant to represent the simple minds we would all have if no art existed in the world.

Art makes us think and explore levels of reality. I feel like Godard is trying to make his audiences see the value of interpreting art in your own way and not just swallowing one artist’s vision.

But talk about avant-garde—yikes.

Godard’s King Lear is not suited for impatient viewers. I spent most of the 90 minutes scratching my head and struggling with the overwhelming cacophony of sound. The entirety of the film is punctuated by the sound of screeching seagulls, car horns and violent string music. This is only addressed at one moment, where Shakesper happens upon a crazy professor, played by Godard himself, and asks: “There’s a lot of noise around here, huh? What’s it for? What’s it all for, professor? Please!”

In case you hadn’t guessed, the professor never answers. Godard never tells us what any of it is for.

And, of course, like any deep film, King Lear closes with Woody Allen as a character named Dr. Alien, who edits all of Shakesper’s film that materialized out of nowhere on the ground in the woods a few minutes earlier.

Oh, and SPOILER ALERT, Cordelia dies.

There’s a repeated shot of her splayed out like Jesus on the beach in a white gown. Her father sits holding a large stick and looking out over the ocean.

“King Lear: a cLEARing” flashes across the screen. A seagull squawks in an attempt to pierce my eardrums.

Shakespeare would have been proud…?

<object width=”410″ height=”341″ id=”veohFlashPlayer” name=”veohFlashPlayer”><param name=”movie”

Zoey Baldwin is an unabashed grammar nazi, procrastibaker and television addict. She attended Shakespeare camp for five summers in her native California because she is allergic to mosquitoes. She’s in her last semester of the journalism graduate diploma program at Concordia University.

Stay in touch, Brawlers!

Follow @TheBardBrawl on Twitter.

Like our Facebook page.

Email the Bard Brawl at

Artwork - Leigh MacRae
Artwork – Leigh MacRae

3 thoughts on “King Lear (1987), Jean-Luc Godard (director)

Add yours

  1. The character Don Learo is Norman Mailer’s version of Lear but is played not by Mailer but by Burgess Meredith who does a fine job. Many of his lines are from the original play.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: