movie review by
David Ng


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The King is Alive

When their bus breaks down, twelve tourists find themselves stranded somewhere in Africaís Namibian Desert. With their prospects for rescue slim, the ablest bodied of them sets out on foot to find help (the nearest town is five days away) while the others, all ill-equipped to deal with nature, seek shelter in an abandoned shanty town. Faced with diminishing resources, this ragtag bunch must contend not only with the desertís unforgiving harshness but also the encroaching despair that threatens their sanity. By turns bleak and comic, Kristian Levringís The King Is Alive sets out to explore human frailty with the objectivity of a scientist and the introspection of a philosopher. Posing an array of existential questions ("Is man no more than this?"), The King Is Alive alternates between the pretentious and the puerile (characters urinating on each other) but somehow manages to make a few coherent points about death, solitude, and our need for community.

The last of the Dogme 95 signatories, Levring shot his movie according to the groupís much publicized vow of chastity: hand held camera, natural lighting and sound, etc. The use of digital video by cinematographer Jens Schlosser is a revelation. The King Is Alive has the texture of camcorder footage and the grandeur of an epic. At times, the camera leaps into the air, giving us aerial views that remind us how nature can be beautiful and cruel. At other times, the camera focuses on the mouth of a character as words pour out, and for a time, those lips become an expansive, arid landscape.

Words take on increasing importance for the stranded tourists as days turn into weeks. One of them, an aging British actor named Henry (David Bradley) writes out the words to Shakespeareís King Lear in hopes of mounting a production in the middle of the desert. His attempts to enlist his fellow castaways are met with both disdain and enthusiasm. The young French woman Catherine (Romane Bohringer) whom he wants to play Cordelia dismisses him as a horny old man, while American backpacker Sarah (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is game for anything. A bickering American couple played by Bruce Davison and Janet McTeer canít make up their minds. Neither can their British counterparts (Chris Walker and Lia Williams). The American couple is particularly vicious, each searching for the seeds of adultery in the other. Late in the movie, McTeerís control freak openly insults her husband by rehearsing her overtly erotic lines with the groupís unsuspecting (and black) bus driver.

Levring and co-screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen have created a gallery of national stereotypes: the cold French bitch, the ditsy American girl-woman, the working class British couple, the bourgeois Americans, the subservient African, etc. The actors work hard to overcome these generalizations and they succeed for the most part. In one scene, Sarah and Henry talk about their lives, and whom and what they may never see again. Their conversation is spare, simple, and poignant. Later that night, Sarah asks Catherine to tell her a fairy tale. Catherine insults her -- but in French -- so that the unwitting Sarah can only smile like a fool. Throwing together dark humor and tragic pathos, Levring invites us to simultaneously mock, pity and revile all of his characters.

The use of King Lear as creative inspiration has struck some critics as self-serving and random; Levring, they say, could easily have used Hamlet or Othello and achieved much of the same effect. Itís true that none of the characters in The King Is Alive exactly mirrors the ones in King Lear. Levring has picked what he needs from the play and discarded the rest. This irreverence towards Shakespeare may indeed be self-serving but it is deliberately so. Henry uses Shakespeare to stave off boredom and insanity. His fellow castaways, wary at first, come to depend on the playís verse as their only link to civilization. In the penultimate scene (beautifully edited by Nick Wayman Harris), they sit around a fire and recite their lines because it is the only thing they have left. In effect, King Lear is or becomes the life source for everyone.

The King Is Alive will probably benefit from the passage of time. Itís the kind of movie that grows with you even if its ultimate moral remains elusive. Levring is still an immature director and is much better with imagery than with narrative (his career consists mostly of television commercials). When he can bring it all together, as he does in a late scene in which the characters, having just buried one of their own, must wander through a blinding sandstorm in a direct reference to Learís own climactic confrontation with nature, The King Is Alive rivets us with the force of its unapologetic audacity.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]