The King Is Alive

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE KING IS ALIVE

7/10

Denmark 2000
dir. Kristian Levring
scr. Levring, Anders Thomas Jensen
cin. Jens Schlosser
stars David Calder, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Bradley, Janet McTeer
108m

No film deserves the burden of expectation carried by The King Is Alive: in terms of fevered anticipation it’s the closest to The Phantom Menace that the arthouses may ever get. Alive is the fourth and therefore the last of the ‘proper’ Dogme 95 movies, the fruits of a semi-serious vow of cinematic chastity signed by Levring, Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacoben and Lars Von Trier. Vinterberg’s magnificent Festen (my rating 129) was followed up by Kragh-Jacobsen’ endearingly idiosyncratic Mifune (116), and Lars Von Trier’s frequently questionable but enthrallingly risky The Idiots (112). Tough acts to follow, by any standard.

At the moment I’d give Alive the bronze medal, slotting just behind Mifune and just ahead of The Idiots. I stress at the moment, because I’ve only seen Alive once, but that was enough to know I wanted and needed to see it again. Except seeing is only part of it – this is a real cinematic experience, a world brought to life on screen. While the previous dogme trio played out in various odd corners of Denmark, Levring heads thousands of miles south, down to a ramshackle former mining camp deep in the Namibian desert: A rudimentary, rough-edged place, the camp proves extremely well suited to the rudimentary, rough-edged diktats of the dogme “rules”. Namibia, 1999 : you are there.

In contrast to the rawness of the setting and directorial style, the premise of Alive is outlandish, so much so that some audiences may initially have difficulty suspending their disbelief. A small coachload of western tourists are travelling through south-west Africa when they discover that their electronic compass is broken and they have veered several hundred miles into uncharted desert. They stop at a disused mining camp to refuel, only to find that their diesel cans are empty. No-nonsense Aussie bush-tucker-man Jack (Miles Anderson) quickly grasps the seriousness of the situation, and, after discussions with the camp’s sole remaining resident, an elderly African (Peter Khubeke), he sets off to walk to the next village, many miles away. On departing, he gives some basic rules for desert survival – stressing how important it is to keep spirits up. This inspires actor/scriptreader Henry (Calder) with the bright idea of transcribing Shakespeare’s King Lear from memory, then persuading the others to take part in rehearsals and readings. As each day passes day without sign of Jack, tensions mount and relationships come under strain. The elements take their toll on the Lear project, as elderly Ashley (the late Brion James) collapses, and is replaced in the title role by Henry himself.

This is potentially Lord of the Flies material, as the trappings of civilisation start to burn off under the heat of a merciless sun, but there’s a fair amount of Beckett in the mix as well – especially when Calder sits motionless next to the African surveying the antics of his fellow travellers through round black glasses, his mouth set in a grim slit of a smile. Levring explores extremes of light and dark as he oscillates sharply between whimsical humour (the non-actors’ woeful early tries at Shakespeare are milked for laughs), searing poignancy (their final campfire reading is, devastatingly, 100% serious), and psychological savagery: during night conversations the screen is often totally dark, except for an illuminated half-face at the far edge of the frame.

Similarly striking, and arguably the film’s defining images, are the ever-present sand-dunes just beyond the camp, their leeward sides in stark silhouette, sunward sides bleached almost white, and a razor-sharp but unstable line dividing the two. The slight fuzziness of the digital camera pays dividends here: never before on screen has the desert been invested with such raw, inhospitable, alien majesty. The dunes are as terrifyingly vast, but as effervescently unstable, as the huge ocean waves of The Perfect Storm, with surf replaced by sand blowing off the tops of the ridges, and humans are similarly rendered insignificant, transient specks. There’s no getting away from the wind, or the sand – the camp’s dwelling-houses have long been flooded by the desert, and there are miniature replicas of the inescapable dunes in every room, despite the best efforts of the westerners to achieve a ‘normal’ domesticity. This produces a nice visual coup when one character is dragged across the floor, her hair leaving a swirly trail behind. Levring also makes full creative use of the slightly weird results of training digital cameras on fires, producing appropriately primitive zoetrope effects out of a violent campfire confrontation: it’s part of the dogme code to make full use of what you find around you, just as the travellers are forced to improvise with what unpromising material they can muster.

Levring is, in technical terms, difficult to fault, and he’s capable of startling visuals – evocative, enigmatically brief shots of the speeding bus, the passengers, the camp and the desert from the air – without ever falling into the traps of flashiness or painterly over-attention to visual beauty. He may be a little cut-happy at times – his an energetic approach to editing possibly betraying his advertising background – but he knows what to do with his camera, and how to bring the best out of his impressive cast. What minor problems there are with Alive reside in the script. Leaving aside the somewhat self-consciously way-out premise, it’s arguable that the ongoing stresses and strains suffered by the travellers are just a little too predictable and formulaic.

While the women (McTeer, Leigh, Lia Williams, Romane Bohringer) are always in control of both the situation and themselves, the men develop into caricatures of different kinds of weakness, with the exception of the two Lears (Bradley and Brion James) who are both notable for remaining detached from any romantic or sexual entanglements. The three romantic relationships depicted – McTeer (who has the poise and force of a Vanessa Redgrave with Bette Davis eyes) and husband Bruce Davson, Williams and husband Chris Walker, Leigh and older lover Bradley – all go the same way, to varying degrees. The woman asserts herself, the man crumbles under the force of the attack and the pressures of the situation. She sails on relatively unscathed, at least psychologically, while he resorts to desperate, drastic acts of self-destruction.

I’m also uncomfortable with the selection of King Lear as basic dramatic template, partly because I don’t know the play particularly well. In some ways, this ignorance of mine is a help – it’s a weakness shared by all of the characters except Henry: McTeer breezily sums up the play for Davison thus – “It’s about this King, and he has two daughters, or maybe it’s three… Anyway, he’s got a coupla kids…” But, as the film develops, I kept sensing levels of meaning buried deep beneath my feet, which I could only discern in the broadest outline, and which only a thorough advance knowledge of the play would help me decipher.

But these considerations aren’t especially distracting while Alive occupies the screen. While the director undeniably impose his vision on the film, it’s also a real actor’s showcase, and, with the possible exception of the vague Bohringer, whose character remains aloof from her fellow travellers, there are no weak links in the chain. While McTeer gets the best single line – during a quickfire synopsis of the play for the benefit of her husband, she drolly informs him that “Nobody has to fall in love, and everybody gets to die in the end” – it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who has the meatiest role. Her Gina isn’t the sharpest tool in the box – one scene pivots on her total inability to understand French – but she isn’t unaware of this fact, and it doesn’t stop her from puncturing the pompous ego of the film’s most unsympathetic character, in a truly electric scene of naked emotion.

Levring’s film is nothing if not ambitious. Its structured sets up – but maybe doesn’t really develop – some pretty grand ideas. There’s the sustaining power of art; the relationship between performers and audience; the way elements of both drama and everyday life can blur into ritual; the power of storytellers and their witnesses; and so on. The role of the static, all-seeing (though he’s short-sighted) African becomes increasingly pivotal to these high-flown concerns – Levring has suggested that the African is really the ‘King’ of the title, but there’s enough space in this movie for a wide variety of valid interpretations, even down to the rather abrupt and unexpected, but entirely appropriate conclusion. The film is as ambiguous and enigmatic as its title, which seems to nod at least as much to Morrissey and Elvis as it does to Shakespeare. There’s plenty to marvel at, puzzle over and chew on here – I think it’s safe to say that Levring has succeeded in completing a quartet of films that are remarkable by any cinematic standard. Hats off to the dogme boys: four pitches, four home runs.

by Neil Young
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