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Friday, March 2, 2001

'THE KING IS ALIVE'

Dogmatic 'King Lear' stranded in the dunes


The Dogma '95 film movement, started by a group of Danish filmmakers, is a short-list of 10 rules known as the "vow of chastity" -- a pledge to eschew action, sets, props, soundtracks, lighting, stable camerawork, genre conventions and directorial credit. Like many a radical movement, it is entirely reactionary in nature, rejecting all use of artifice (or, one could say, craft) in an attempt to purge cinema of Hollywood's excesses. As director Kristian Levring -- one of Dogma's founders, along with Lars von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark") -- explains in the promo notes for his film "The King Is Alive," "It's about getting back to the essence of story-making."

Bruce Davison in "The King Is Alive"

But as is abundantly clear from "The King Is Alive," as well as every other Dogma film so far ("The Idiots," "Julian Donkey-Boy" and "The Celebration"), story is one of the movement's weakest points. Dogma opts for maximum freedom and experimentation in the filmmaking process, which is a lot of fun for the people making the film, but often not as enjoyable to watch. Without a clear-headed vision to guide the improvisatory approach, the results can easily drift from the miraculous to the masturbatory.

Such is the case with "The King Is Alive," which -- like its Dogma brethren -- is art-wank supreme. With its well-hyped aesthetic posturing and oh-so-clever hypertextual use of Shakespeare's "King Lear," it would not be a stretch to label this "high concept" filmmaking, in that the ideas behind the film seem more important than the actual results.

Levring's tale involves a group of tourists who become stranded in an abandoned mining town in the middle of an African desert when their bus veers off course. Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Romane Bohringer, Janet McTeer, Bruce Davison, Chris Walker, David Calder and Brion James, the tourists are largely a spoiled, self-centered bunch; only aging actor Henry (David Bradley) and the bus driver Moses (Vusi Kunene) have the sense to give the other idiots some distance. One man, Jack (Miles Anderson), sets out across the desert for help and tells the others to wait.

As they do so, they implode, drinking, constantly complaining, hitting on each other, making racist remarks about the African driver and panicking. To help them pass the time, Henry writes down the script to "King Lear" from memory and suggests they put on a production of it. Cynical American Ray (Davison) refuses to go along, saying "I'm not gonna participate in some sort of silly group therapy."

If only the director had listened. The production does indeed go on, and lines from "Lear" are used to mirror the interpersonal breakdowns occurring between the group, as partners torment their spouses and play hurtful sexual games. This juxtaposition is rather heavy-handed, though, and all too smug in its own cleverness.

Actually, Levring's tale of spoiled tourists has much more in common with Danny Boyle's "The Beach" than it does with "Lear." Where Boyle tried to get clever by quoting "Apocalypse Now," Levring does the same with Shakespeare's tragedy. Where Boyle posited sex as the force that would spoil paradise, Levring uses it to turn up the heat in his desert hell. (And, in both films, the characters involved are so unsympathetic, you can't wait for the wrath of the gods to rain down upon them and shut them up.)

But unlike "The Beach," where at least I was able to understand why Tilda Swinton's character would want to shag Leo, or why Leo would hustle Virginie Ledoyen, "The King Is Alive" features sexual politics that just defy common sense.

Ask yourself this: If you were a young woman stranded in the middle of the Sahara, would your choice of action be to sleep with the most obnoxious, elderly and arrogant man available -- a man so repellent his very touch would make you want to puke -- solely in order to get him to participate in a bit of amateur theater to pass the time?

If your answer is "no," then give this film a miss. In Shakespeare's "King Lear," we can all understand the emotions and desires at play between the king and his daughters -- it speaks to human nature. "The King Is Alive" lacks such an understanding, leaving one with the inescapable feeling that the concept is more interesting than the characters. Levring has said, "I want us to believe that what we see has actually taken place," but no amount of hand-held camerawork can disguise the director's machinations, ineptly pushing the characters into conflict. The King may be alive, but Emperor Dogma has no clothes.

"The King Is Alive" opens March 10 at Cinema Rise.


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