It took six years after the creation of the Dogma 95 manifesto for Kristian Levring’s first Dogma film, The King is Dead, to reach American shores—and far less time than that for the Dogma 95 movement to become a not-so-subtle joke. In 1995, Levring and his Danish film-making countrymen Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and SÃ¸ren Kragh-Jacobsen opined that cinema had become addicted to technological trickery and genre conventions at the expense of the artist’s quest for truth. Thus was born Dogma 95, which sought to return genuine insight to filmmaking by requiring its adherents to embrace hand-held cameras, natural lighting and sound and location shooting. And if Danish films were suddenly a topic of cinematic conversation, so much the better.
Potential marketing hook aside, the whole movement seemed misguided from the start. True, the emergence of digital video had democratized filmmaking and stripped the gloss away from some psychological realities. But did the Dogma founding fathers really believe that a film spoke more potently about the human condition simply by virtue of its minimalism?
Nearing its sixth birthday, Dogma 95 has, like most dogma, grown more bound to the letter of its laws than to the spirit behind them. And ironically, the most remarkable example to date of what could be achieved in that spirit could never have been Dogma 95-certified. It was shot in black and white, involved the use of props in its location settings and was, by most definitions, a “genre” film. It was called The Blair Witch Project.
The King is Alive mines remarkably similar thematic terrain as The Blair Witch Project—and despite its “certification,” it’s not nearly as successful. Stretches of The King is Alive crackle with the urgency of psychological deterioration, until Levring begins to find his truth in melodramatic confrontations and messages literally printed on the screen.
The premise of The King is Dead seems so ridiculous that it’s remarkable it doesn’t collapse entirely. A group of tourists in North Africa discover that their bus driver (Vusi Kunene) has followed a broken compass into the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles from civilization. Stuck without gasoline and minimal food and water, the passengers take refuge in an abandoned one-time German mining town. And with little but their increasingly desperate thoughts to occupy them as they wait for an improbable rescue, they turn to an unlikely amusement: rehearsing and staging a makeshift production of King Lear, transcribed from memory by a veteran actor among them named Henry (David Bradley).
Not surprisingly, there’s not a well-adjusted happy camper in the bunch, even before heatstroke and claustrophobia set in. Ray (Bruce Davison) and Liz (Janet McTeer) are an unhappily married American couple. Catherine (Romane Bohringer) is a sullen French fille who instantly dislikes American party girl Gina (Jennifer Jason Leigh). And there’s the laugh-a-minute trio of arrogant English businessman Charles (David Calder), his thick-headed hooligan of an estranged son Paul (Chris Walker) and Paul’s doormat wife Amanda (Lia Williams).
Levring and his co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen spend little time sketching out his characters before stranding them, but for most of the film’s first hour you scarcely notice. Personalities emerge through individual reactions to their plight. Charles makes condescending comments about the Lear project; Liz curtly asks Ray, as he fumbles with his script, “Honey, could you stop with the paper … please? … thanks.” Tensions build as food grows scarce and people look for alliances, like we’re in some art film doppelganger version of Survivor. Halfway through its running time, The King is Alive is still subtly unsettling stuff.
Then, quite unexpectedly it slams into a wall of forced recriminations. Whatever axes critics of The Blair Witch Project might still be prepared to grind—nausea-inducing camerawork, overly profane dialogue, yadda yadda—the interactions between its characters always felt authentic and deadly serious. Characters in The King is Alive, by contrast, share insights like “I thought I might be able to open you up,” and “You never thought of me—not once.” Despite Levring’s apparent belief to the contrary, such sentiments don’t feel any more piercing and honest just because a digital video camera is parked at the end of the speaker’s nose.
Nor does it seem particularly wise to drop the symbolism hammer as often or as loudly as Levring opts to do. The King Lear production serves a dozen different symbolic functions in The King is Alive, and Levring makes sure every parallel is head-smackingly clear. Isn’t it intriguing how every character in the film somehow resembles his or her King Lear counterpart. And isn’t it a terribly incisive commentary on failure in communication when the one African man native to the town observes the rehearsals and comments, through voice-over and English subtitles, “The people said words, but they didn’t say them to each other.”
Plenty of elements of the Dogma style work to perfection in The King is Alive. Unlike many Dogma cousins, this film uses its desaturated color palette beautifully, turning the desert into a blinding wasteland and Bruce Davison—with his sun-blistered face beneath a shock of white hair—into something resembling an Oompa-Loompa. When no one is talking, the terrifying desolation of its characters flares off the screen.
But this is one of those Dogma films that makes you wonder whether the whole concept wasn’t just a huge inside joke. Even Levring’s use of Shakespeare works like a self-deprecating stab at the notion that “real art” is about contemporary people dealing with contemporary issues. The King is Alive doesn’t deliver an absence of contrivance, just a different brand of contrivance. Levring abandons his characters to Blair Witch-like animal need, then abandons them to trite confrontations. If that’s the Dogma brand of “reality,” give me black and white photography and imported props any day.
The King is Alive (R) HH1/2 Directed by Kristian Levring. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bruce Davison.