The King Is Alive. Directed by Kristian
Levring, Pathé, 2000.
Reviewed by Carolyn Jess
The Queen's University of Belfast
Jess, Carolyn. "Review
of The King Is Alive. Directed by Kristian Levring, Pathé, 2000."
Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 17.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-1/revjess.html>.
Directed by Kristian Levring. Written by Kristian Levring,
Thomas Anders Jensen. Produced by Christopher Ball, Malene Blenkov. Cinematography
by Jens Schlosser. Production manager, Kristina Kornum. Sound, Jan Juhler.
Editor, Nicholas Wayman-Harris. With Jennifer Jason Leigh (Gina), Janet McTeer
(Liz), Romane Bohringer (Catherine), David Bradley (Henry), David Calder (Charles),
Bruce Davison (Ray), Brion James (Ashley), Peter Khubeke (Kanana), Vusi Kunene
(Moses), Miles Anderson (Jack), Chris Walker (Paul), Lia Williams (Amanda).
The fourth production to be released under the Dogme
95 banner, The King Is Alive appropriates Shakespeare's King Lear
specifically to establish the political aims of the twentieth-century's
last 'new wave' cinema. Dogme 95 was founded by a body of Danish filmmakers
(Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian
Levring) at the international symposium in Paris, 'Le cinéma vers
son deuxième siècle', on the centennial anniversary of the
Lumière's primary cinema screening in Paris, which was held on 22
March 1895 and not 28 December 1895 as was originally believed. Dogme's
'Vow of Chastity' sets out ten rules that filmmakers must obey if their
film is to be certified as a 'Dogme' film, whereby 'superfluous' film modalities
and methodologies such as extra-diegetic sound, tungsten lighting, genre,
camera tripods, black and white film stock, props, and 'personal taste'
are forbidden. As stated in the two-page manifesto, Dogme's aim is to restore
as much as possible of the 'purity' of New Wave innovation, and in particular,
as much of the 'innocence' of the Lumière era as it is possible to
revive. In pronouncing Shakespeare's Lear as 'alive', Levring's film delineates
the interests of Dogme's goals by positing Shakespeare's text at the juncture
between a 'dead' aesthetic, and one that is re-born.
Set in an abandoned mining village in Namibia, Africa,
Levring's film sets Shakespeare's text at the centre of a diegetic framework
around which the film's basic narrative circumnavigates. A group of tourists
get stranded in the desert when their coach follows a broken compass for
hundreds of miles in the wrong direction, and subsequently runs out of fuel.
The most desert-savvy of the bunch (Jack) goes off to get help, while the
rest of the team get drunk, begin illicit affairs, and eventually perform
a version of King Lear that is re-written according to Henry's memory
of the play. The events of the play begin to reflect and heighten the reality
of the characters, revealing the cracks in their relationships and emotional
selves that gape open by the film's end. Including fragments of Shakespeare's
original text, the Lear soundbites nonetheless provide the film's
allegorical and diegetic framework. Each role brings judgment upon the characters
who participate in the play, and even those who opt out of the performance
(such as Catherine) find themselves mirroring and 'performing' more than
one lascivious character throughout the film's duration. In accordance with
the 'doubling' effect inherent in Lear, Gloucester (Charles) is more
convincingly a veritable Lear, and Catherine and Gina each serve as 'Cordelias'.
Liz is both Goneril and Regan in one flesh, and the part of Lear is played
first by Ashley, who is replaced by Henry (also the play's 'director') when
he suffers a mild heart attack. Reflecting the doubling of actors, directors,
and narratives inherent in the production, the film appears to announce
the dichotomous partnership of Shakespeare's text with Dogme's manifesto,
one refracting off the other to illuminate the death of cinema as we know
it and the beginning of a cinema that adheres to Dogme's rules.
The film's strengths lie in the strikingly post-apocalyptic
cinematography that soaks up Namibia's parched landscapes, capturing the
rippled spines of dunes via helicopter shots on three DV cameras without
filters, tripods, or special lenses. The lack of music (in keeping with
the 'Vow') recalls Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away (2000), which (predominately)
employs silence to enforce the protagonist's subjectivity and suffering.
The cast's impressive and largely improvised performances are heightened
by shooting in sequence, making the actors' visible fatigue and desert-shock
apparent. Despite the film's patent portrait of and engagement with Dogme's
ethos (treating the desert as the barren cinematic aesthetic of recent years),
Lear is employed as a commentary on human frailty, and the low-budget
docu-drama production style serves to exemplify many of the characteristics
of the play and the narratives that evolve from its cinematic engagement.
Indeed, in bringing the text 'back to life', the tourists
jeopardize their own lives. Catherine poisons Gina/Cordelia over what appears
to be a 'sibling' rivalry for Henry/Lear's affections, but, unbeknownst
to Catherine, Charles beats her to the punch. When Gina scorns his lecherous
advances, he strangles her to death and hangs himself, suffering Cordelia's
fate in the play at his own/Gloucester's hands. Two marriages come to an
end, though one appears to be on the mend by the film's close. Catherine
will never discover that her actions towards Gina, though bent on killing
her, did not result in her demise, and Henry suffers from the torment
of knowing that his memories of the play and his decision to lead the performance
have somehow caused these cataclysmic deaths.
As with many of the (now 35) Dogme films, Levring's production
does not adhere strictly to the 'Vow' (shooting, for instance, on DV instead
of 35mm), yet does not wander far from the parameters of Dogme's philosophy
and rules. As one quarter of Dogme's founding body, Levring appears to convey
his individual approach to cinematic 'purity', and presents an intriguing
methodology for appropriating a Shakespeare play, whereby the Bard is employed
to authenticate, judge, and comment upon upheavals in the cinematic aesthetic.
Particularly compelling in its effective performances, cinematography, and
direction, the film joins a growing collective of staple independent productions
and filmmaking movements that demonstrate counter-Hollywood ways of producing
films, and, in this case, showcase approaches to Shakespeare via the latest
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2004-, Matthew
Steggle (Editor, EMLS).