King Lear (1987 film)
French theatrical poster for King Lear
|Directed by||Jean-Luc Godard|
|Produced by||Yoram Globus
|Written by||William Shakespeare (play)|
|Edited by||Jean-Luc Godard|
|Distributed by||Cannon Films|
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.
- 1 Cast (in order of appearance)
- 2 Godard's text
- 3 Woolf's text
- 4 Shakespeare's text
- 5 Synopsis
- 6 Soundtrack
- 7 Production
- 8 Release
- 9 Reception
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes and references
- 12 Sources
- 13 External links
Cast (in order of appearance)
The film itself contains no credits or credit sequence at all, although there is a cast list on the packaging insert.[a]
- Menahem Golan as himself (voice off, uncredited)
- Jean-Luc Godard as himself (voice off)
- Tom Luddy (voice off, uncredited)
- Norman Mailer as himself
- Kate Mailer as herself
- Peter Sellars as William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth, a descendant of William Shakespeare
- Burgess Meredith as Don Learo
- Molly Ringwald as Cordelia
- Suzanne Lanza as a goblin (uncredited)
- Michèle Pétin as a goblin (uncredited)
- Leos Carax as Edgar
- Julie Delpy as Virginia
- Jean-Luc Godard as Professor Pluggy
- Freddy Buache as Grigori Kozintsev ("Professor Quentin")
- Woody Allen as Mr. Alien
Godard's script includes only a few of Shakespeare's lines from King Lear, and these are often fragmentary and generally not heard in the order as they appear in the play. Many of the lines are not actually spoken by the characters on-screen (i.e. diegetically), but are often heard in voice-over, spoken perhaps almost incomprehensibly or barely whispered, repeated, echoed. The lines or phrases are taken from:
- Act 1, scenes 1,3,5;
- Act 2, scenes 2,4,6;
- Act 4, scenes 6 & 7;
- Act 5, scene 3.
There is nothing from Act 3.
Extracts from three of Shakespeare's sonnets, numbers 47, 138 and 60 are heard during the film. There is also a single line from Hamlet: "Inside me there is a kind of fighting which will not let me sleep." (Act V, scene 2:5)
"[This] film, not at all tragic, is intellectualized and does not offer the [casual] spectator the possibility of full understanding. As the filmmaker makes clear in the film, he does not intend to give it a comprehensive treatment, since it is only an approach, a study, which is obviously partial. There is nothing definitive about the text; it is constantly interrupted, discontinuous, a disordered mix of images, a true chaos..."
"The film does not present a linear story; rather, diegetically, this nearly does not exist. It is a mass of images, texts, voices without logical sequence. It has dozens of allusions to other works and quotes from famous texts [...] Each quotation, analogy, demands from the spectator great extra-textual knowledge. It is as if Godard concentrated centuries of art and culture in this film, reviewing all of history [...] What is derived from the [play's] text are only a few characters, vaguely associated with those of Shakespeare, and some speeches totally out of context."
Apart from lines from Shakespeare's play, extracts from a number of modern literary sources are also heard during the film: some are spoken by an on-screen character, some in voice-over on the deliberately confusing soundtrack. These readings are sometimes thought to be Godard's own words. They are listed in the order in which they appear in the film.
- "Be sure..."Robert Bresson (1975). Notes sur le cinématographe.
Paris: Éditions Gallimard. Folio n°2705.
- "If an image, looked at separately...": Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe.[b]
- "I am alone," the world seems to say...": Jean Genet (1958). L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti
Paris: Éditions Gallimard.[c][d][e]
- "Now, even if Lansky and I are as awesome...": Albert Fried (1980). The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- "A violent silence for silence of Cordelia..." Viviane Forrester (1980). La violence de la calme.
Paris: Editions du Seuil.
- "The image is a pure creation of the soul...": Pierre Reverdy (1918). L'image.
Revue Nord-Sud, n°13, March 1918.
- "A violent silence. The silence of Cordelia": Viviane Forrester, La violence de la calme.
- "And in me too, the wave rises, it swells, it arches its back..." Virginia Woolf (1931). The Waves.
London: Hogarth Press.
What has come down to us as King Lear is a conflation of three separate and considerably differing sources: two quartos, published in 1608 (Q1) and 1619 (Q2) respectively, and the version in the First Folio of 1623 (F1). The differences between these versions are significant. Q1 contains 285 lines not in F1; F1 contains around 100 lines not in Q1. Also, at least a thousand individual words are changed between the two texts, each text has a completely different style of punctuation, and about half the verse lines in the F1 are either printed as prose or differently divided in the Q1.
Although somewhat superseded, Horace Howard Furness's variorum edition of 1880 minutely discusses all the versions, since "the Quartos, 'maimed and deformed' though they be 'by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors', do nevertheless contain lines, and even a whole scene, which do not appear in the Folio, but are nevertheless Shakespeare's," and it was not "deemed fitting to omit these."[f]
Furness cites Coleridge who, in a single sentence, sums up the raw emotions which form the basis of the play, and on which Godard's film concentrates in the relationship between Lear/Mailer/Learo/Godard and 'Cordelia':[g]
- "The strange, yet by no means unnatural, mixture of selfishness, sensibility, and habit of feeling derived from, and fostered by, the particular rank and usages of the individual ; — the intense desire of being intensely beloved,— selfish, and yet characteristic of the selfishness of a loving and kindly nature alone;— the self-supportless leaning for all pleasure on another's breast ; — the craving after sympathy with a prodigal disinterestedness, frustrated by its own ostentation, and the mode and nature of its claims ;— the anxiety, the distrust, the jealousy, which more or less accompany all selfish affections, and are amongst the surest contradistinctions of mere fondness from true love, and which originate Lear's eager wish to enjoy his daughters' violent professions, whilst the inveterate habits of sovereignty convert the wish into claim and positive right, and an incompliance with it into crime and treason; — these facts, these passions, these moral verities, on which the whole tragedy is founded, are all prepared for, and will to the retrospect be found implied, in these first four or five lines of the play."
Furness also invokes the thoughts of the critic William Watkiss Lloyd about Cordelia:
- "She is proud of being in the right, in contrast with her vulgar sisters, and this feeling she opposes to her sisters and to her old father. The weak old father has a right to a few flattering expressions from a loving child, because he needs them. She offers him, on the contrary, what he cannot bear, the truth. Any human, whose nature is love, and who is straitlaced for truth, is a doubly perverted creature. Truth and Love are completely antipodal ; what else is love for an individual but the taking of a finite object for an infinite, and worshipping it as such? Thus, love is essentially a lie, not a truth, and Cordelia misbehaves like her sisters, only in a different way, by egoism and lovelessness. One for whom she cannot tell a little lie, she does not love as she should. On this fine ground, which the poet has laid very close to us, now rests the whole piece."
Timings are taken from the original MGM DVD.
The film begins with a sequence of extended inter-titles: 'The Cannon Group / Bahamas', 'A Picture Shot In The Back', 'King Lear / Fear and Loathing', 'King Lear / A study', 'An Approach'. A three-way telephone conversation is heard between the film's producer, Menahem Golan, Godard, and Tom Luddy. Golan complains about how long Godard is taking to make the film and insists that it must be ready for the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.[h]
At the Hotel du Rivage in Nyon, Norman Mailer discusses his new script for King Lear with his daughter Kate Mailer, and why the characters have Mafia-like names like Don Learo, Don Gloucestro.[i] He wants to go back to America. They sip orange juice. The whole scene is then repeated.[j]
William Shakespeare Junior (Will Jr.) sits at a table in the deserted hotel restaurant, overlooking Lake Geneva. There are some red tulips on the table.[k] He wonders why he has been chosen to make this film, rather than a better-known director ("...some gentleman from Moscow or Beverly Hills. Why don't they just order some goblin to shoot this twisted fairy tale?"). In voice-over, Godard reads extracts from Robert Bresson's Notes sur le cinématographe. Will Jr. imagines 'auteurs' who could have made this film, like Marcel Pagnol, Kenji Mizoguchi,[l] François Truffaut ("No"), Georges Franju, Robert Bresson, Pier Paulo Pasolini, Fritz Lang, Georges Melies, Jaques Tati, Jean Cocteau.
Junior wonders about Luchino Visconti (assistant to Jean Renoir), and about Auguste Renoir's attraction to young girls in later years.[m] The name of Mr Alien[n] is heard in voice-over with an image of Sergei Eisenstein editing on his death-bed.[o] Will Jr. is now in a hotel bedroom, looking at an album with images of Orson Welles,[p] Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Power and Virtue (inter-title)[q] Rembrandt's Saint Paul, Rubens' Young Woman Looking Down, Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son.[r] At the same time, in voice-over, Cordelia reads from sonnet 47: and Lear - foreshadowing the last scene of the play - mourns the death of his daughter.
Seen at a restaurant table with yellow flowers, Will Jr. explains in voice-over that he is on duty for the Cannon Cultural Division:[s] and then there is NO THING (inter-title).[t] Everything had disappeared after the Chernobyl explosion.[u] Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya.[v] After a while everything came back: electricity, houses, cars—everything except culture and William Junior. Emerging from a reed bed, he explains (in voice-over) that—by special arrangement with the Cannon Cultural Division and the Royal Library of Her Majesty, the Queen[w] he was engaged to recover what had been lost, starting the works of his famous ancestor.
In the restaurant, Will Jr. (very noisily slurping his soup) overhears Cordelia talking with a waiter.[x] Learo interrupts, and Will Jr. realises that he is speaking lines from one of Shakespeare's lost plays. But Learo starts reminiscing about Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, two Jewish mobsters in Las Vegas.[y] Lear reproves Cordelia for not having professed her love for him effusively enough, and says she will lose her inheritance ("You may mar your dollars"). Will Jr. goes to thank Cordelia ("my lady"), but Learo accuses him of "making a play for my girl", and silently leads her away. "Characters!"[z]
- Still under construction
- William Shakespeare Junior and goblins in the woods in mime.[aa]
- Will Jr. meets Edgar, "a man poorly dressed",[ab] and Virginia (who wasn't there).[ac] Edgar says they are in Aubonne/Los Angeles.[ad] Edgar learns about Pluggy, whose "research was moving in parallel lines to my own".[ae]
- Learo and Cordelia in the hotel room. He dictates from Fried's book while she types. Telexes arrive from his other daughters. NO THING. Music speeds up.
- The goblins appear on the hotel balcony,[af] who Will Jr calls "the secret agents of human memory."
Edgar, Will Jr. and Virginia who is picking up flowers, walk past a large red skip (00:31:13).[ag] Crow sound. Virginia picks up a white flower beside an apple tree. Express train sound. Sound of bells.[ah] Will Jr., engrossed in writing, suddenly looks up.
On the hotel balcony, a goblin, invisible to Lear, taps him on the shoulder (while Will Jr. in voice-off speaks Lear's words, wondering who he is): breaking the fourth wall, the goblin says out loud, on screen, "Lear's shadow!".[ai] In the hotel bedroom, a maid opens the french windows and two goblins enter. The man chants the words "Abracadbra! Mao Tse-tung. Che Guevara," and they disappear.[aj] The maid starts to change the bed sheets, but they are covered in blood.[ak] Will Jr. comes in, looking for Mr. Learo and stares aghast at the mess. Brief shot of Learo with Cordelia by the river in the woods.[al]
And then we are back in the half-finished house (belonging to Anne-Marie Miéville). Pluggy mutters lines from sonnet 138. Will Jr. asks Pluggy about his research. "Just what are you aiming at, Professor?" Pluggy farts loudly in Will Jr.'s direction. Virginia explains cryptically that "When the professor farts, the mountains are trembling."[am]
Fire scene inside the house/Plato's cave. Virginia is ironing Cordelia's nightgown (she wears it in the Joan of Arc sequence at 01:07:00).[an] NO THING (inter-title). Music starts slowly. Edgar lights a little bonfire[ao] with sticks and paper he gathered up on the way in. Will Jr: "It is born, and it is burnt. It begins from the thing it ends. At the same time."[ap] Music accelerates to nearly full speed. "Then what is it? (Looking straight at Virginia) TELL ME THE NAME! Look, no names, no lines. No lines, no story!"[aq] Virginia: "To name things makes the Professor pee." (or just 'P') Edgar: "Poor things. Who are they, to need a name? To exist?"[ar] Discussion of colour. Red and yellow tulips.
Sonnet 47 in voice-over again. (00:41:15) Cordelia stands at a mirror, wiping her face clean. A maid brings a breakfast tray into the hotel apartment. Cordelia follows her unnoticed from the bathroom and watches while the maid taps on the cups and plates. (Viviane Forrester's "A violent silence for silence of Cordelia...").[as] Nothing. No Thing. Seagull squawk. Will Jr (in voice-over): "...But everything which conspires and organises itself around her silence, that wants to silence her silence, this produces violence." Cordelia is suddenly very aware of something, glancing round. Sudden coincidence of son+image as one of the goblins knocks her ass against the table with a crash.[at] Another goblin, dressed like Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, looks at a book. He lights her cigarette (with a lighter, like in the fire scene). But the goblins are suddenly gone, and Cordelia picks up the book: more images.[au]
Will Jr. is sitting on the rocks and getting completely soaked by the waves. Power and Virtue (intertitle). No Thing in voice-over. Brief shot of Learo arriving at restaurant table. Edgar, walking by the river in the woods, finds an empty film can in the river. Two goblins snatch it from him. NO THING. Music speeds up.
Pluggy's editing studio. He is photocopying his hand. Will Jr. enters.
Godard appears to have disguised one of the central aspects of his film so well that almost every writer who mentions it does so with a sense of bafflement and bewilderment: namely, the shots illuminated by a bare light bulb of toy plastic dinosaurs and other animals in a cardboard box. These shots are intercut with the montage sequence described below. At 00:48:18, we see a plastic red dinosaur and some other animals. Will Jr. asks, "What's it all for, Professor? Please?" And Pluggy replies, "The Last Judgement." Pluggy seems to be referring to the biblical passage in the Book of Revelation which describes the war in heaven. Lest we mistake the toy dinosaurs[av] in the box, a few moments later (00:48:34) Virginia (off-screen) cries "Snakes!" The French word for 'snake' is 'serpent', the old English and French name for dragon, and the Wagnerian equivalent is 'Wurm'. Revelation, chapter 12 tells how the great red dragon is thrown down to earth, and v. 9 gives some of its names: dragon, serpent, devil, Satan. "Do not come between the dragon and his wrath," says Lear several times during the film.
One of the most famous cinematic dragons is perhaps the scene-stealing star of Part I of Die Nibelungen. The film featured in Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard's next huge project after King Lear: "Short of fusing himself into the celluloid, Godard does what he can to immerse himself in cinema's promised immortality, bathing like Fritz Lang's Siegfried in the blood of the beast."
"The image is a pure creation of the soul..." (Pierre Reverdy)
In this highly compressed and cinematically meaningful sequence (00:49:00), Godard demonstrates the technique of montage, which allows a film-maker to bring two or more opposing realities into a new association. The scene takes place in Professor Pluggy's cutting room (or editing suite). The images (starting from 00:49:04) are:
- Henry Fuseli: Shipwreck of Odysseus.
- Unidentified image.
- Film clip of a female face in close-up.
- Giotto: The Mourning of Christ (detail). Fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel (Arena chapel), Padua.
- Film still of a notorious shot from Luis Buñuel's Un chien andalou.[aw]
- Fuseli: Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking
- The front cover (detail) of Tex Avery by Patrick Brion, published in France in 1986 while King Lear was still in production. It shows a reversed still shot of the wolf from Tex Avery's 1949 cartoon Little Rural Riding Hood.[ax]
- Unidentified painting of a young man kissing a reclining woman's neck.
Cordelia is seen lying on her bed, wearing the nightgown which Virginia was ironing, with the book of Doré pictures. Goya's Judith and Holofernes, illuminated by a candle flame (00:50:43)[ay] Another shot of the animals in the cardboard box. Brief shots of what seems to be a cinema audience in silhouette.[az] The shadowy figure standing beside the editing monitors lights a sparkler and turns out to be Edgar. Pluggy asks him if he has finished "our construction" yet. Edgar hands the sparkler ('cierge magique' in French, lit. 'magic candle') to Will Jr., and goes off to ask Virginia. "Let's go," says Pluggy, and Will Jr. asks if he can bring some friends.[ba]
In the restaurant, Learo gets angry with Will Jr., while Cordelia buries her head in her hands. Shot of white horse. Will Jr. (off-screen) reads more Forrester. Learo buries his head in his hands. Will Jr. gives Cordelia a sparkler.[bb] Learo talks about "God's spies".[bc] In a small cinema or screening room. A journalist from The New York Times  asks Pluggy about his new invention. Professor Kozintsev arrives.[bd] Discussion of cinema.[be]
Learo and Cordelia are in the empty cinema/screening room. Will Jr. sits between them. "Peace, Mr. Shakespeare. Come not between the dragon and his wrath." He goes to sit somewhere else, and his chair tips up. On the soundtrack we hear a scene from Kozintsev's King Lear.[bf]
- Still under construction
- Re-make of the scene from Robert Bresson's 1962 film The Trial of Joan of Arc.
- Virginia Woolf's The Waves on the pebbles.[bg]
- (Inter-titles): 'King Lear / A Clearing'. Express train sound. 'NO THING'. Clear, joyous birdsong. Easter bells. The first image. Winding back time to zero. J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, opening chorus. Bells. Pluggy lying on the ground surrounded by flowers. "Now I understand that Pluggy's sacrifice was not in vain." "Now I understood through his work the words of St. Paul: 'The image will re-appear at the time of resurrection.'"[bh]
- Death? of Will Junior (well, he looks dead).[bi] Shot of the empty film can which Edgar picked out of the river earlier. Edgar spools up some film. Edgar exits left, pursued by
a bearWill Jr. with an elephant gun.
- By the lake. All five main characters (Virginia, Edgar, Lear, Cordelia, and William Junior) together for the only time in the film. "The dawn of our first image" coinciding with shot of the horse.[bj] Cordelia on the rocks, Learo with the gun, facing away from camera. Shot in the back, like many of Godard's images. How does Cordelia die? No shot is heard.[bk]
- Mr. Alien's editing studio. Mr Alien stitches the film together with needle and thread. Shakespeare sonnet 60.[bl] Shot of the white horse again in slo-mo. Lear's final lines read by Ruth Maleczech and recorded by Peter Sellers (along with David Warrilow) in Philip Glass's studio in New York. A STUDY (inter-title). Seagull squawk. End.
"Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden."
The sound engineer was fr:François Musy, who worked on most of Godard's major films from Lettre à Freddy Buache to Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro. Shakespeare's original play is full of lines containing animal imagery. In King Lear Godard fills the soundtrack with a barrage of semi-identifiable animal noises: one of the most noticeable is the shrill and raucous call of a crow. This is a recurring sound in Godard's films, including Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro and JLG/JLG. A detail of Wheatfield with Crows, one of Van Gogh’s very last paintings, appears towards the end of King Lear.[bm] Discussing JLG/JLG, Nora M. Alter remarks: "Not only is the crow conspicuously absent on the screen, but its sounds are conspicuously disjunct, too loud to be part of the landscape. This sequence, sometimes with the muttering voice of the narrator superimposed, is repeated at irregular intervals[...] I want to suggest that, consistent with much of Godard's work, [this sequence] does not hierarchize the aural and the visual. On the contrary, it fuses the two together as a sound image, or rebus..."
In many of Godard's films, the aural and the visual are conceived to be perceived as one, a son+image (sound+picture). This a type of audio-visual collage made up of overlapping or repeated film clips, written or spoken poetry, philosophy, high and low literature, as well as paintings and visual citations, which function as a rebus. Godard's later films break the conventions that film dialogue should generally be audible and meaningful and progress the plot. Although King Lear uses Dolby stereo to good effect,[bn] vision and sound often do not complement each other, with the effect of making viewers continually question what they are seeing or hearing.[bo]
The music exemplifies two of Bresson's aphorisms in Notes sur le cinématographe: "No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. (Except, of course, the music played by visible instruments)"; and "The noises must become music."
Although barely recognisable, much of the music is taken from Beethoven's last completed work, the String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135. Ever since Godard's 1963 short film Le Nouveau Monde, Beethoven's Große Fuge and final quartet had provided a lasting challenge to the moral compromises and the empty banalities of the moment. In King Lear, Godard slowed the music down and electronically manipulated it so that the only easily identifiable extract is from the second movement (in 3/4 time, from around from bar 120). At the very start of the film the music is heard playing at about half speed, but most of the time it is played back even slower as a low background dirge. The passage only reaches the proper pitch two or three times, with a swift accelerando at crucial moments of NO THING and then collapses again as swiftly: when Cordelia sinks down on the balcony with Learo (wearing red) uncomfortably close behind her (00:30:40), and when the goblins snatch the empty film can from Edgar's hands beside the river (00:46:50).
The opening chorus of J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion is heard during the reversed stop-motion sequence of "creating" the flowers (01:13:05), and at the death of Professor Pluggy (01:14:20), similarly slowed down.
- "From this I reach what I might call a philosophy ... that the whole world is a work of art. ... Hamlet, or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."
Although Norman Mailer had written a complete script, Godard didn't use it. Mailer & his daughter, Kate Mailer, arrived in Nyon in September 1986 and did around three hours' shooting. He was paid $500,000. The scene with Woody Allen was shot at his editing suite in the Brill Building, Manhattan in January 1987, and the main part of the shoot took place in March 1987 in Nyon and Rolle, a few kilometers away. Godard had also accepted a contract to make some short commercial films for Closed, a brand of jeans by Marithé and François Girbaud. These commercial videos were shot in March 1987 at the same time as King Lear, and the same actors/models in the commercials also appear in the film as the goblins. "“What sets me apart from lots of people in the cinema,” Godard has said, “is that money is part of the screenplay, in the story of the film, and that the film is part of money, like mother-child, father-daughter.” The ads use similar locations and a similar montage technique, and the titles some of the jeans ads make the connections obvious: Tulipes, Fer a repasser (Ironing, lit. 'Smoothing iron')[bp] and King Lear.[bq] One of the shots (the models/goblins climbing over the hotel balcony railing) is used in both the commercial and the main film of King Lear.
King Lear showed at the Cannes Festival on 17 May 1987, and after a brief two-week run in the US it did not appear in cinemas for another fifteen years. It was re-released in 2002 by a French distribution company, Bodega Films, but the company and Godard were sued by Viviane Forrester, the author of one of the literary quotations used in the film, for infringing her copyright. Godard and Bodega were both fined 5,000 euros and King Lear was withdrawn after two years. MGM released a DVD for the Italian market only, with wildly garbled subtitles which are often only a vague approximation of some of the lines and names mentioned in the film. The DVD seems to have been generally available since 2013, possibly after Roger Ebert's mention of it on his website.
The film has an approval rating of 50% on the ratings aggregator RottenTomatoes.com.
Desson Howe of the Washington Post criticised Godard for inappropriately imposing his unique style on Shakespeare's work - "Where the playwright values clarity and poetry, Godard seems to go for obfuscation and banality. Shakespeare aims for universality, while Godard seeks to devalue everything." - whilst reserving praise for the editing and cinematography.
Also commenting in The Washington Post, Hal Hinson classified the film as a "labored, not terribly funny practical joke", "infuriating, baffling, challenging and fascinating" in which Godard "trashes his own talent".
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times, however, called it, "a work of certified genius", and Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, described it and Godard's In Praise of Love as, relatively, "great films that are even more aesthetically radical than his earlier ones"; In terms of the film genre of adaptations, Brody has called the film his "favorite movie of all time."
The New York Times review by Vincent Canby compared it unfavourably to the rest of Godard's oeuvre as "tired, familiar and out of date", remarking that the few lines of Shakespeare delivered in the play overpower his dialogue, making it "seem much punier than need be". Nonetheless, Canby praises the acting as "remarkably good under terrible circumstances".
Canby also called the film "sad and embarrassing" and was quoted by Keith Harrison in the introduction to his Bakhtinian Polyphony in Godard's King Lear. Harrison cites the critical responses of Peter S. Donaldson, Alan Walworth and Anthony R. Guneratne for their sustained coherence of analysis of King Lear, and discusses the film in terms of Mikhail Bakhtin's interrelated concepts of dialogism, the carnivalesque, heteroglossia, the chronotope, co-authoring, polyglossia, inter-illumination, refraction, unfinalizability, and polyphony, to show that "Godard's autobiographical and densely fragmented re-creation of Shakespeare's King Lear is carefully shaped, meaningful, and, ultimately, compelling in its multi-voiced unity."
Notes and references
- Quentin Tarantino falsely claimed (in an early résumé at the start of his acting career) to have played a part in the film, on the basis that casting agents in Hollywood would be unfamiliar with the film.
- "If an image, looked at separately, expresses something clearly, if it entails an interpretation, it will not transform itself in contact with other images. The other images will have no power over it, and it will have no power over the other images. No action. No reaction."
- Godard gives this passage a slight détournement, substituting 'the world' for 'the object' of the original: "Je suis seul, semble dire l’objet, donc pris dans une nécessité contre laquelle vous ne pouvez rien. Si je ne suis que ce que je suis, je suis indestructible. Étant ce que je suis , et sans réserve, ma solitude connaît la vôtre."
- "Six sculptures by Alberto Giacometti last seen together 60 years ago will be reunited for a London exhibition [at the Tate Modern] focused on the work of the Swiss artist." Pickford, James (24 January 2017). "Rare reunion: Giacomettis come to Tate". Financial Times. p. 2e. Retrieved 25 January 2017.
- A short passage (between the Genet and Fried extracts) about film editing, "holding the past, present and future in your hands", may be by a film director/editor or similar, possibly Eisenstein? And Godard's bravado spiel about cinema and how "you wouldn't know where to look" starting at 01:00:43 ("I tell you, miss,") may well be a paraphrase of someone else's words. That would make nine monologues, the same number as in The Waves.
- Furness has an admirable scholarly and literary style all his own. If you like your footnotes to take up around 90% of the page, this is the book for you. Page 4 is a slightly extreme but by no means unique example.
- According to Carole Levin, it was probably Camille Paglia who widened the scope of Sigmund Freud's term 'family romance' to include the idea that "we each have an incestuous constellation of sexual personae that we carry from childhood to the grave and that determines whom and how we love or hate."
- At the 1985 Cannes Festival, Godard had signed a contract (written on a napkin) with Golan to make 'King Lear' film, with a script by Norman Mailer, starring Woody Allen.
- Mailer had already written such a script for the film.
- This time, with Godard in voice-over commenting on the abortive start to shooting in Nyon in September 1986, when Mailer left the production.
- There is something red in almost every shot in King Lear, like Jaques Tati's Playtime, but not to the extent in Claude Faraldo's Themroc: throughout most of this film (which notoriously contains no intelligible dialogue at all) there is an almost continual movement of something red across the screen.
- Godard's breathy delivery of the first short Bresson extract is particularly difficult to make out, since it appears to have been cut-up to deliberately mangle his détournement: "Be sure of exhausting everything which communicate by immobility and silence" (or similar). The original reads: "Be sure of having used to to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence.".
In Le Gai Savoir, Godard referred to Guy Debord's "The Society of the Spectacle", which has its own guide to the many détournements he used. Godard's early political films were heavily criticised by Debord in Internationale Situationniste in March 1966, although they were working on much the same lines.
- Some of the harshest criticism of Godard's films concerns his apparent misogyny, explored - for example - in Yosefa Loshitzky's study of Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci."Jacques Rivette said: "Have you ever noticed that he [Godard] never uses women over twenty-five? Godard was asked to directed Eva (before Joseph Losey) but he refused because of Jeanne Moreau. An adult woman frightened him."
- Woody Allen had a rocky relationship with his stern, temperamental mother.
- Eistenstein, one of Godard's major influences, had a particularly troubled relationship with his mother, who abandoned him when he was quite young, leaving Russia to live her own life in France. She returned to Russia after the 1917 October Revolution, but she became very dominating and essentially stalked him around Moscow, unable to give him the security of a fulfilling mother-son relationship.
- Welles had struggled in his last years to make a film of King Lear, and according to Anthony Gutneratne, Godard's film is as much Welles's as his own.
- Learo, voice-over: "Peace, Mr Shakespeare", and the sound of a cinema chair being tipped up. This foreshadows the scene in the cinema/screening room with the extract of Kozintsev's King Lear.
- Like the music (Beethoven, Op. 135), and other paintings in this film, (Goya, van Gogh) this was one the artist's last works. The parable, from Luke 15:11-32 is often read as a lesson in church services on the third Sunday of Lent (leading up to Easter). There are several other allusions to Easter, death and resurrection in King Lear.§
- Cannon Films were well-known in the 1980s for Michael Winner's Death Wish sequels II—4 with Charles Bronson, and for Chuck Norris action pictures such as The Delta Force, etc., etc. Cannon also produced Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train (1985), Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello of 1986, and Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance, which had a disastrous reception at the 1987 Cannes Festival and went on general release three days after King Lear in September 1987.
- One of Godard's recurring themes is a return to zero, explored in - for example - Le gai savoir  and Sauve qui peut (la vie)
- This took place on 26 April 1986, while King Lear was still in preparation.
- This is one of his so-called Black Paintings painted at the end of his life.
- If you are a monarchist you lose, because the (unspecified) queen's library is full of books full of words, and Godard's/Pluggy's library is full of images, and you are watching his film, and not reading one of her books. Q.E.D.
- One of only three times in the film when French is spoken.
- Godard incorporates in King Lear a number of ideas for an unmade film about the Mafia called The Story.
- That 20-minute moment.
- A tableau vivant, from Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr.. Also, cf. "The persons and objects in your film must walk at the same pace, as companions.
- cf. "My father, poorly led?" from Act IV, scene 1.
- Virginia Woolf as the narrator of The Waves, 'isn't there', like a film director 'isn't there' - but they later both appear in person in the scene in the half-finished house.
- There may be some metonymy going on here, by which Aubonne (a small town not far from Nyon) stands for Hollywood.
- Will Jr. is trying to recreate Shakespeare's play with words for the queen's library, whereas Pluggy is trying to recreate the play for his own 'library', which contains images. From the first scene in the house (00:34:57):
- Will Jr.: I understand you've been working on this problem here, Doctor?
- Pluggy: Well, nobody writes. The writing's derivative. Oh, recover is what I'm looking for. If that - if that makes sense.
- cf Closed Jeans commercials with the same actors/models, texts by Reverdy and Rilke (born 4 December, like Claude Renoir; Godard and Nino Rota born 3 December; Fritz Lang and Walt Disney, 5 December).
- Will Jr. enacts the reverse of the routine in mime in the woods, "following his suspect closely" like Sherlock Jr..
- This is the apparently the same tree where Pluggy 'dies' at 01:38:33, with the same train and bell sounds: but the second time with untainted sustained birdsong.
- Cordelia cannot see the goblins either (cf scene in the hotel room at 00:47:47): Edgar later chases after them with the film can, so he is diegetically aware of them. Will Jr. (in voice-over) introduces them when they appear on the balcony, but in the scene in the woods when they follow him in mime (00:20:02), he cannot see them although he is aware of something.
- This is self-reference: Godard used a shot of Maurice Sachs's last novel Abracadabra (1952) at a crucial moment in A Bout de Souffle. Sachs (d. 1945) has been described as an "abject personality, a notorious swindler, chronic liar, professional thief, informer, Gestapo agent, simoniac, suborner, trafficker in everything, marketer of catamites, receiver of stolen goods, spy, stipended writer, drug dealer, occasional procurer, paedophile, double agent, black market profiteer, Jewish collaborator, prevaricator, fake priest, pawnbroker, nark, forger, and abandoner of women and children". His last novel, Abracadabra, posthumously published in 1952, is an "involuntary mystification spread over 230 pages, an allegory of nothing at all summed up by its title, a non-book for shelves in country houses".
- According to Gilles Deleuze, discussing the 'affection-image' in Cinema 1: The Movement Image, "Godard's formula, "It's not blood, it's red," is the formula of colourism in cinema".
- Possible reference to Virginia's Woolf's suicide by drowning in the River Ouse on 28 March 1941, having filled her pockets with stones.
- This is likely a self-deprecatory reference to "The Mountain in Labour", about the difficulty of creating a film which has a greater impact upon the world than Horace's "ridiculus mus".
- "Flatten my images (as if ironing them), without attenuating them." cf. Girbaud Closed jeans commercial Fer à repasser.
- Fr: 'un feu de joie', lit. 'A fire of joy'.
- From JLG/JLG (1994): (34:00) "Be careful about the fire within. Art is like fire. It is born from what burns."
- At the end of the montage scene in his cutting room (00:53:03), Pluggy asks Will Jr.: "Anyway, what's her name?" "Cordelia." "Is that her real name, or you just invented it?"
- cf. JLG/JLG at 18:15: Godard has been reading from The House That Stood Still (1950) by A. E. van Vogt, who became preoccupied around this time by Alfred Korzybski's General semantics and with the dianetics of L. Ron Hubbard:
- "A thing is not what you say it is. It is much more. It is a set in the largest sense of the word. A chair is not a chair. It is an inconceivably complex structure, atomically, electronically, chemically. In turn, thinking of it as a simple chair constitutes what Korzbyski termed 'identification': and it is the totality of these identifications which produces non-sense, and tyranny." Sound of gunfire.
- Forrester seems to echo Maurice Blanchot in his L'entretien infini, a collection of essays published in 1969 on writing, atheism, neutrality and revolt, among others:
- "All speech is violence, a violence all more the formidable for being secret and the secret centre of violence; a violence that is already exerted upon what the word names and that it can name only by withdrawing presence from it - a sign, as we have seen, that death speaks (the death that is power) when I speak. At the same time, we well know that when we are having words we are not fighting. Language is the undertaking through which violence agrees not to be open but secret, agrees to forgo spending iteslf in a brutal action in order to reserve itself for a more powerful mastery, henceforth no longer affirming itself, but nontheless at the heart of all affirmation."
- "All speech is a word of command, of terror, of seduction, of resentment, flattery, or aggression; all speech is violence - and to pretend to ignore this in claiming to dialogue is to add [to?] liberal hypocrisy to the dialectical optimism according to which war is no more than another form of dialogue."
- A brief exception to one of Bresson's aphorisms: "A sound should never come to the rescue of an image, nor an image to the rescue of a sound."
- 00:44:33 Most of the following are by the Swiss artist Henrich Füssli:
- Or 'terrible lizards': from δεινός (deinos, meaning "terrible", "potent", or "fearfully great") + σαῦρος, (sauros, meaning "lizard" or "reptile".)
- Buñuel died in 1983. A Francophone punster/joueur de mots might notice a homophone with 'ondes-loup', or 'waves-wo[o]lf'. See also Michel Leiris (1939) Glossaire, j'y serre mes gloses. Paris: Éditions de la Galerie Simon (impr. de G. Girard).
- (And not Goofy, as many have erroneously thought.) The still is taken from the cabaret sequence where the wolf's eyes pop out on vast stalks at the sight of the singer dressed in red.
- Judith beheading Holofernes was a popular subject often linked to Power of Women iconography in Northern Europe.
- Timothy Murray draws attention to the Apparatus theory of fr:Jean-Louis Baudry connecting the cinema with Plato's Allegory of the Cave: "We can thus propose that the allegory of the cave is the text of a signifier of desire which haunts the invention of cinema and the history of its invention." According to Richard Suchenski:
- "Godard has repeatedly argues that cinema is the last art with direct ties to a representational approach originating in Ancient Greece, and the movie theater is presented here as a reconstructed version of Plato's cave, a unique type of space where the light 'must come from the back', with its reflection off the screen enabling viewers to see glimpses of otherwise hidden realities."
- In Godard and Miéville's fr:The Old Place, Godard expounds on Walter Benjamin's idea of linking past and present by a poetic 'constellation', a fleeting resurrection of the past in an image:
- "It is not that what is past casts its light on what is past; rather, the the image is the place wherein that which has been, comes together in a flash in the now, to form a constellation."
- What's her name?
- Is that her real name, or you just invented it?
- -Well, I...
- You're the sparkler, my friend, you're the sparkler.
- "It is not that what is past casts its light on what is past; rather, the the image is the place wherein that which has been, comes together in a flash in the now, to form a constellation."
- "If it had gleamed white, in her hand, then her virtue is true, and her name is Cordelia."
- See Wilt 1993 for a perceptive discussion of Woolf's 'onto-theology' and some parallels with King Lear. Wilt explains the complex concept of 'God's spies' thus:
- "Shakespeare's haunting and enigmatic phrase points surely to a way and type of knowing which is both transcendent and some how illicit, invasive. As God's spies, God's eyes, the father and daughter will "criminally" see the things the world hides, the mystery of things, the Mystery, the space occupied (perhaps) by God. To "take on" the Mystery is both to shoulder it, to disguise oneself in/as it, and to confront or even fight it. The intent is both to critique an aspect of religious thought and organization (they will wear out not only "packs" but also "sects" of great ones) and to embark on the religious quest oneself, somehow bearing the Mystery one hopes to spy out. The goal or grail of this quest, for these spies, is to see "through" the world (in both senses of the phrase) to the Mystery that lies below or behind the ebb and flow, and to do this by wearing (wearing out?) the world.Wilt 1993, p. 180
- Kozintzev (d. 1973) and Leonid Trauberg co-directed The New Babylon in 1929 about the Paris Commune in 1871, which featured in Histoire(s) du cinéma 1A. Although Shakespeare's Duke of Kent is not expressly included in Godard's film, a description by Coleridge does not seem entirely out of place here:
- "Kent is, perhaps, the nearest to perfect goodness in all Shakespeare's characters, and yet the most individualized. There is an extraordinary charm in his bluntness, which is that only of a nobleman, arising from a contempt of overstrained courtesy, and combined with easy placability where goodness of heart is apparent. His passionate affection for, and fidelity to, Lear act on our feelings in Lear's own favour; virtue seems to be in company with him."
- At 01:04:29, Pluggy says:
- "No, you are part of the experience, like all of us. We are all part of it. Even if we have not found it, whatever you called it, 'Reality' or 'Image', we fought for it. And, by heaven, we are no longer innocent."
- This is from Act IV, scene 7 ("Be your tears wet? Yes, faith. I pray weep not." / "Что это, слезы, на твоих щеках? Дай я потрогаю. Да, это слезы. Не плачь!") and not from Act 1, as is widely believed.
- "Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore" (01:24:55)
- NB Apparently non-existent words of St. Paul; or at least, they don't appear in 1 Corinthians 15 vv. 12-13, 21, or 42, and apparently nowhere else either.
- This could be the 'end' of one of three cut-up films within King Lear, if the inter-title at 00:13:19 ('3 Journeys into King Lear') is significant. Cf. The Cut-ups (1966), included in Cut-up Films by William Burroughs.+
- Not unlike Eadweard Muybridge's early stop-motion photographs. See Gutneratne 2009, pp. 209–210.
- In Shakespeare's play she dies on the Duke of Cornwall's orders, and certainly not Lear's. Does Godard's Cordelia even die? Maybe she becomes the horse.
- Woolf herself had sonnet 60 in mind when she was revising the introductions to the monologues which separate the sections of The Waves.
- According to the art historian Robert Rosenblum, van Gogh saw crows as a symbol of death and rebirth, or of resurrection. The painting is a projection "of a terrible isolation, in which the extremities of a space that stretches swiftly from foreground to an almost unattainable horizon, are charged with such power that the artist, and hence the spectator, feels humbled and finally paralyzed before the forces of nature."
- "Having been fortunate enough to have seen King Lear at film festivals in Toronto and Rotterdam, I can testify that it has the most remarkable use of Dolby sound I have ever heard in a film.
- Commenting on Godard’s latest offering at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Jonathan Rosenbaum remarked: "The frantic babble of the instant appraisals of Film Socialisme that have been tumbling out of Cannes this week — none of which has struck me as being very coherent or convincing, regardless of whether they’re pro or con — remind me once again of how long Godard has been in the business of confounding his audience."
- Which mirrors the shots of Virginia ironing, from 00:37:02
- The soundtrack of the latter advertisement also uses a typical multi-layered audio montage, and when de-constructed with a simple Caulostomy, reveals Pierre Reverdy's text overlaid with a passage from chapter 8 of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, written in Sweden in 1904.
- Lui: " L'Image est une création pure de l'esprit. Elle ne peut naître d'une comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux réalités plus ou moins éloignées [...] Une image n'est pas forte parce qu'elle est brutale ou fantastique — mais parce que l'association des idées est lointaine et juste."
- Him: "The image is a pure creation of the soul. It cannot be born of a comparison, but of a reconciliation of two realities that are more or less far apart. [...] An image is not strong because it is brutal or fantastic, but because the association of ideas is distant, and true."
- Elle: "Tous les dragons de notre vie sont peut-être les princesses qui attendent de nous voir beaux et courageux. Toutes les choses terrifiantes ne sont peut-être que des choses sans secours, et attendent que nous les secourions." NB Which is not the most accurate translation of:
- "...vielleicht sind alle Drachen unseres Lebens Prinzessinnen, die nur darauf warten, uns einmal schön und mutig zu sehen. Vielleicht ist alles Schreckliche im tiefsten Grunde das Hilflose, das von uns Hilfe will." (Rilke 1929, p. 14), thus:
- Her: "Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting for us, to see us handsome and courageous once again. Perhaps everything terrifying is at the deepest level a helpless thing, that wants our help."
- Lui: " L'Image est une création pure de l'esprit. Elle ne peut naître d'une comparaison mais du rapprochement de deux réalités plus ou moins éloignées [...] Une image n'est pas forte parce qu'elle est brutale ou fantastique — mais parce que l'association des idées est lointaine et juste."
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