In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, with its realization of Cold War nuclear fears, a poignant question rose to the surface — like so many similar disasters — for artists, critics, and art enthusiasts around the world: what becomes of art when we return to nothing? The answers to this question are varied. One could point to Emily St. John Mandel’s nostalgic optimism in Station Eleven as a hopeful outcome where art survives ruin. Conversely, Jean-Luc Godard’s response in King Lear (1987), by adapting the enduring, timeless William Shakespeare, is one that not only frightens but creates an image of a future where art surely dies with humanity in order to be revived alongside it. In other words, to return to nothing, art becomes something once again.
Based on an aborted script by Norman Mailer and a few scenes filmed with the author and his daughter Kate, Godard’s King Lear was revitalized with a script by Peter Sellars and Tom Luddy. Sellars, an enfant terrible to many critics and audiences alike, is known for his radical, transformative interpretations of classic operas and other dramatic works — which King Lear is no exception. With this adaptation, Godard, Sellars, and Luddy transport Shakespeare’s tragedy into a modern day (for 1987), post-Chernobyl setting where King Lear is Don Learo, a mafia boss handing down his criminal gains and empire to his daughter Cordelia. Although the film doesn’t strictly abide to the source material — in fact, Godard only uses select fragments from throughout the play, particularly Act I, Scene I — the defiance to the overwhelming reverence given to Shakespeare’s work allows Godard to better comment on the legacy of art, especially when faced with imminent destruction. King Lear follows William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth (played by Sellars himself) as he attempts to revive the original playwright’s work after the Chernobyl disaster destroys all art throughout the world. In doing so, Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth meets Don Learo and Cordelia — whose interactions assist in the rewriting of Shakespeare’s work — Edgar and his girlfriend Virginia, Professor Pluggy (Godard, who sports a mock Cockney accent and a bunch of electronic cables on his head), and Mr. Alien (Woody Allen as… himself?) as they survive the post-nuclear world.
This is not traditional adaptation, and, by recognizing this, the viewer can better understand the arguments Godard raises. The director has throughout his career been fascinated by the concept of the image — particularly in how poet Pierre Reverdy describes it in his short piece “L’Image” (1918), which Godard has referenced throughout his filmography (see The Image for both a translation of Reverdy’s “L’Image” and examples of Godard’s usage of the work). In King Lear Godard quotes it in a rough English translation:
The image is a pure creation of the soul. It cannot be born of a comparison, but of a reconciliation of two realities that tell more as far apart. The more the connection between these two realities are distanced, the stronger they get to be, the more they could have emotive power.
For Godard (and Reverdy), the image is not a constant, concrete entity; the image is composed by the progression of time, movement, and sound when compared to what precedes and follows it — the past and future. There is never a present image, for the image cannot be extracted as a singular piece. Through this interpretation of “two realities,” distant but connected, a timeline of sorts, Godard impresses upon the distinct importance that cinema as a medium has through its ever-moving, ever-changing image (which itself cannot be separated by the sound attached, if it is there).
In essence, the image is an atom under fission: that through the separation of of two realities, the connection remains despite distance due to an always present comparison — a burst of energy or, more drastic, an explosion. This is where the Chernobyl disaster presents itself in Godard’s commentary in King Lear. The meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear factory evokes in the mind the fission of the atom, and, comparatively, in Shakespeare’s King Lear Act V, Scene 3, Kent and Edgar question Britain’s and Lear’s ruination:
Kent: Is this the promised end?
Edgar: Or image of that horror?
The image. L’Image. Regardless if it is the fated Doomsday, the comparison between two realities — one a Britain under King Lear, now a Britain without Lear or his daughters; one a world with Chernobyl, now a world without Chernobyl and, especially, art — comprises the image of King Lear, and, from this image, Godard can make his explanation that from “nothing, no thing,” art can truly thrive.
“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again” (Act I, Scene 1), declares King Lear to his dear Cordelia who utters not the flattery of her sisters, insisting her filial duty and unmarried status represent her love for her father far better than words. But Godard, too, insists in his adaptation Cordelia speaks beyond nothing, “What she shows in speaking is not ‘nothing,’ but her very presence, her exactitude.” The nature of nothing (or no thing) is a paradox of something, as intangible as it may seem. Cordelia’s lack of words — this nothingness — becomes a representation of her steadfast love; it raises the image of her love: her previous devotion to Lear and her future devotion (regardless of Lear’s abandonment of Cordelia) are this image that Lear calls nothing. “Nothing. No thing.”
Godard makes the point crystal clear, not only through direct acknowledgment of this presence through absence, but also with the revival and reinvention of art following the nuclear disaster. When the “time of Chernobyl” arrives, as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth calls it, Godard presents a painting to exemplify art and humanity in their symbolic totality following the nuclear disaster. To be precise, the director uses close-ups of Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, which pictures the god Saturn eating one of his children for he fears they will overthrow him. The painting relates to Godard’s King Lear, whose eponymous king’s division of state results against his aim to prevent strife, yet also resembles humanity’s hubris, arrogance, and power-hungry nature, which eventually leads to humanity destroying its future, including art. What should be inferred, however, is the prophecy against Saturn will still come true. He will be deposed; humanity will thrive; and, behind the scenes, art will survive through its resurgence and reinvention, for what follows the past — like the image — is greater enforced as the distance between this connection grows.
Furthermore, Godard’s routine commentary on language, although not the primary focus of the film, brings about similar points. In a scene about halfway into King Lear, Professor Pluggy, Edgar, Virginia, and Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth discuss whether “live beauty,” colors, or lips need names to describe them and their existence, remarkably similar to Juliet’s famous words in Romeo and Juliet, “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (Act II, Scene 2). The Bard’s grandson cannot agree with Pluggy and asks, “How can I possibly reach words with no words?” Pluggy’s response is show, later elaborated as “show, don’t tell.” Once again, the image is evoked as a powerful force. No matter what mistakes may lie within any language, the power of the image is its ability to present aspects of truth that may not be easily stated, and art, with the image as its tool, can create understanding from what appears to be nothing. Without language, the image can still speak like Cordelia’s actions do for her love of Lear.
At the film’s end, the completion of Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth’s project to rewrite his great-great-great-(ad nauseum)-grandfather’s oeuvre and the culmination of the film itself, which the grandson is somehow involved, brings him to an editing studio provided by the Cannon Cultural Division. From the “dawn of our first image” after Chernobyl to the present moment, where “the motion picture industry was growing fast again,” art is flourishing too (alongside consumerism, but that’s an enemy to fight another day). Here the grandson meets Mr. Alien/Woody Allen, prophesized by Professor Pluggy to appear, who will handle “in both hands the present, the future, and the past,” or the image — literally combining two ends of film stock together, two realities. With the creation of this art, King Lear itself and the rejuvenated work of Shakespeare, nothing has become something, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, outlasting death. Almost like a thesis statement, the film ends with Mr. Alien (and Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth parroting him after each line) reciting Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 60.” The sonnet describes how, despite Time, art can withstand its degradation of youth, beauty, and “nature’s truth,” but Mr. Alien nor Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth say the final couplet, “And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand, / Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.” While it may not be in the film, the implication of the sonnet remains, as do these two lines. Shakespeare’s verse, Goya’s paintings, Sellars’s theatre, and Godard’s cinema have and will outlast their creators, and this art will survive, even if it is destroyed entirely, because its inspirations, its truths, its realities, its images still strike within that nothingness which follows death, destruction, and the foretold Doomsday, because within that nothing is still something mineable for the artist and the human. Sellars repeats this notion nearly three decades later in a clip for “An Imaginative Offer,” a short film from the UCLA:
I think one of the things that we do when we make theatre is you start with nothing. Making something with nothing is the whole point of being human. We’re not animals. We’re not foraging for something that’s already there.
The screenwriter/director seems consistent with what he likely wrote in 1987 for King Lear, albeit Godard may have changed Sellars and Luddy’s script drastically once he shot and edited the film, but the point is still present. No matter Chernobyl or any other disaster, art will follow. King Lear/Don Learo is in fact wrong — something will come from nothing.
King Lear may lack a complete reverence for Shakespeare’s text, but Godard is not focused on an adaptation for film. He is dedicated to realizing the extraordinary functions of cinema as a medium for critique, and with King Lear, art’s ability to withstand its own impermanence despite becoming nothing is an important point of discussion. He uses underlining themes within Shakespeare’s play to comment on art, the image, and nothing. The film may not be among the director’s most celebrated; however, King Lear is exceptional as a film that is more than sheer entertainment or a straightforward visual essay. In many ways, this 1987 feature is the origin for his larger project Histoire(s) du cinema (1989–99), which he bookends with two poignant comments on nothing:
Change nothing so that everything is different. (“Chapter 1(a): Toutes les histoires,” 1988)
Yes, image is happiness. But beside it dwells nothingness. The power of the image is expressed only by invoking nothingness. It is perhaps worth adding: The image, able to negate nothingness, is also the gaze of nothingness on us. The image is light. Nothingness, immensely heavy. The image gleams. Nothingness is that thickness where all is veiled. (“Chapter 4(b): Les Signes parmi nous,” 1998)
Godard deconstructs cinema of the twentieth century to present a personal yet broad critique of histories, stories, images, peoples, and art; and at its core is the idea nothing pervades humanity. It is an absence to be escaped despite its permanent imprisonment. From this nothingness, people can create; but at some point, everyone must return to nothing. Change will follow, even if nothing is changed. Art will be created, perhaps destroyed. Life will be created, perhaps destroyed. But the future set in nothing will still change, and in that nothing, creation, too, follows as, eleven years prior, King Lear showed, not told.