Lost in the African desert after their bus breaks down far off the beaten path, a handful of European tourists try to maintain sanity and civility by distracting themselves with ad hoc rehearsals for a do-it-yourself "King Lear" production in "The King Is Alive."
What comes of the experience, however, is not a productive pulling together. Bouts of bitterness quickly arise between couples, base behavior surfaces among those who feel they have nothing to lose, and with the portent of possible death looming as large as the blistering desert sun, individuals turn inward to face their own demons. Sanity and civility hang on by a very thin thread.
Co-written and directed by Kristian Levring as his contribution to the Dogme95 collective -- a quartet of Dutch filmmakers experimenting with cinematic minimalism -- the film's vérité style of handheld cameras and natural light (per the Dogme rules) makes it pop with tension and raw emotion as the tourists unravel.
Bruce Davison and Janet McTeer play a couple whose bitter marital discontent boils over and McTeer lashes out in spite by throwing herself at other men in the group. A younger husband (Chris Walker) tries to allay the hysteria of his distraught wife (Lia Williams) while his brash, uncouth, sweaty father (David Calder) employs the anxiety and desperation as an excuse to turn aggressively lecherous toward two troubled young women in the group (American Jennifer Jason Leigh and French Romane Bohringer). Meanwhile the scholar of the bunch (David Bradley) is writing out scripts for "Lear" by hand, from memory, to give them all something elevated to do in the hopes it will stave off such primitive instincts.
Levring draws a few parallels to Shakespeare's characters, but the plot of the play (about the disintegration of a kingdom divided by an aging monarch between his rival daughters) is not really germane to the film's narrative. In fact, the particulars of survival aren't part of the story either. The group has passable shelter (the bus made it as far as an abandoned World War II mining outpost) and references are made to gathering dew water and to finding very old tins of carrots on which to sustain themselves. But the film is about what happens with these people's minds, not their bodies.
At times second-guessing is unavoidable. For instance, why don't they lay out some kind of SOS that could be spotted by a plane flying overhead? Occasionally there's call for second-guessing the behavior of the characters as well. The circumstances and/or conclusions of a couple sexual encounters seem unrealistic or unnecessarily unpleasant.
But such problems cannot undermine the splendid, powerfully high-strung and candid performances of an excellent cast, or overwhelm Levring's resourceful filmmaking. "The King Is Alive" seems to break out of the constraints of the Dogme95 "Vow of Chastity" (put in place to challenge a director's creativity) with its gorgeous, golden desert photography and rich colors that I'd swear were achieved with filters if I didn't know it was against the rules.
Levring is more deliberately cinematic with this film than his Dogme brethren have been with theirs (Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration," Lars VonTrier's "The Idiots," Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's "Mifune"). By choosing artfully quiet photography over the shaky, on-the-fly shooting associated with this emerging movement, and by curbing the improvisation of his actors, Levring has married Dogme sensibilities to a more practiced and elegant composition.
As a result, "The King Is Alive" may be the best Dogme95 film yet -- although there are many I have not seen. Dogme was originally nothing but four directors challenging themselves to create one film each without the aid of modern movie trickery of any kind. But it has caught on among the cinema intelligencia and now there are more than 25 Dogme films from at least five different countries.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th May 2001
Distributed by: IFC Films
Production compaines: Newmarket Capital Group, Good Machine
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 61%
Fresh: 41 Rotten: 26
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Kristian Levring
Starring: Romane Bohringer as Catherine, David Calder as Charles, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Gina, David Bradley as Henry, Brion James as Ashley, Miles Anderson as Jack, Bruce Davison as Ray, Janet McTeer as Liz, Peter Khubeke as Kanana, Chris Walker as Paul, Vusi Kunene as Moses, Lia Williams as Amanda
Also starring: Peter Kubhka