King Lear is a 1987 film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play in the style of experimental French New Wave cinema. The script was primarily by Peter Sellars and Tom Luddy, and was originally assigned to Norman Mailer. It is not a typical cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, although some lines from the play are used in the film. Only three characters – Lear, Cordelia and Edgar – are common to both, and only Act I, scene 1 is given a conventional cinematic treatment in that two or three people actually engage in relatively meaningful dialogue.
King Lear is set in and around Nyon, Vaud, Switzerland, where Godard went to primary school. While many of Godard’s films are concerned with the invisible aspects of cinematography, the outward action of the film is centred on William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth, who is attempting to restore his ancestor’s plays in a world where most of human civilization—and more specifically culture—has been lost after the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Rather than reproducing a performance of Shakespeare’s play, the film is more concerned with the issues raised by the text, and symbolically explores the relationships between power and virtue, between fathers and daughters, words and images. The film deliberately does not use conventional Hollywood film-making techniques which make a film ‘watchable’, but instead seeks to alienate and baffle its audience in the manner of Berthold Brecht.