The King is Alive
2000, R, 105 min. Directed by Kristian Levring. Starring Romane Bohringer, David Calder, Bruce Davison, Janet McTeer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Kubheka.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 1, 2001
Ultimately, I think, it comes down to aesthetics -- a necessarily vague and academic-sounding term, like “postmodern” or “organic.” Twenty-five-cent words that people like to throw around at parties to sound intellectual over white wine spritzers. But then, The King Is Alive, and Dogme 95, the set of “rules” The King Is Alive adheres to, are kind of vague and academic, too. Dogme 95 is a sort of pact made by four Danish filmmakers in the mid-Nineties, which included 10 anti-conventional rules that would dictate how a film was made (i.e., 8. Genre movies are not acceptable; 10. The director must not be credited). The King Is Alive religiously adheres to these rules, and the film even begins with a certificate of authenticity issued by Dogme 95. The film is set in the African desert, and was filmed there too (1. Shooting must be done on location). It tells the story of a dozen tourists who are stranded in the desert when their bus runs out of gas; their survival lies in the hands of a limited supply of canned carrots and the hope that someone will miraculously stumble across them. They stage King Lear in order to pass the time and divert their attention from the desperateness of their situation. But slowly, inevitably, the food runs out, the endless desert becomes unbearable, and they begin to fall apart. Relationships splinter; sexual liaisons prove fatal. Shot hand-held (3. The camera must be hand-held) and entirely on three digital cameras, The King Is Alive proves a very convincing argument that the digital revolution ain't all that bad; the video footage here is absolutely gorgeous, though also aggravatingly under-lit (4. Artificial lighting is not acceptable). There's some impressive acting here from the mostly British and American cast; Jennifer Jason Leigh is especially compelling as a fragile, flighty American. But The King Is Alive moves along with a speed akin to that of plate tectonics, which leaves lots of time to think. Now, I'm all for film making us think, for shaking us out of the glassy-eyed Novocain state most Hollywood fare aims to put us in. But the thing is, mostly I was just thinking about the aesthetics. Thinking how every scene that was not set in the blazing desert sun desperately needed some extra lighting. Thinking how effectively music might have played under certain scenes (2. Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot). Thinking academically about these people's plight, but not emotionally. Thinking how every Dogme pic I've seen is so goddamned bleak, and how somebody should really plop these guys down in front of an old Rodgers & Hammerstein spectacle. So, ultimately, I think, it comes down to aesthetics. Either you like your movies to be, well, movie-like: imitations of life, with musical accompaniment and artificial lighting and tracking shots and looped dialogue; or you like them to be re-creations of life, sans the artifice. The King Is Alive clearly falls into the latter camp; I, however, prefer the former. I'm still waiting for a film to convince me otherwise.