THE KING IS ALIVE
directed by Kristian Levring with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Davison, and Janet McTeer runs Aug. 17-23 at Varsity
DOGMA IS HERE again; it needs some time on the bench. The Danish film collective, which, among other conceits, swears off the artifice of lighting and movie music, made a big splash for itself in '98 with Thomas Vinterberg's searing The Celebration and Lars von Trier's provocative The Idiots, but it can't hit one out of the ballpark every time.
Shot on digital video, Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive strands a busful of troubled tourists "500 miles in the wrong direction" in the African desert, then pretends they'd enact Shakespeare out of sheer boredom. It isn't much more than a high-toned version of Airport or The Poseidon Adventure, without the random, kitschy pleasure of watching Shelley Winters clutching her swimming medal before expiring. King is just a disaster flick with a film-school degree and all the fun sucked out of it. You know—Art. As one character explains, "Just imagine putting King Lear on out here, in this godforsaken place, with these lost souls." Oh, really now, must we?
You've seen this before, without the aridity. Within 20 minutes, the men are drunkenly ogling despairing waif Jennifer Jason Leigh. Soon all the relationships begin to wilt, and you wait for the first person to lose it and scream, "We're all gonna die!" (It's the estimable Janet McTeer of Tumbleweeds, by the way, wasted as an emotionally starved ball-breaker who rubs herself all over the black bus driver in an attempt to ignite her wimpy husband, Bruce Davison. Jeez.) King starts strong—the simmering panic of the setup is palpable—then withers into unimportance, if not quite tedium. Levring is content with perspiration and the "drama" of tired confrontations, like the passive young wife (Lia Williams) telling her boorish husband, "I don't know you anymore." (Well, OK, maybe it is tedious.)
LEVRING DOES FIND moments of repellent fascination. Leigh, of course, whores herself to a pompous, leering old fart (David Calder) in order to get him to play a role in their desert Shakespeare, and there's a nasty bit in which she finally informs him how disgusting he is to her. Unlike the actual Lear, however, the film doesn't treat its Cordelia with reverence: Leigh, literally and figuratively, gets pissed on. Bravo to Jennifer for playing society's underlings, but surely we've all had enough of this, what with her previous screen incidents of rape (Last Exit to Brooklyn), abuse (Bastard Out of Carolina), and dismemberment (The Hitcher).
Following its weary protagonists, King finally collapses under the dry heat.