Wednesday, August 8, 2001

The King Is Alive

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM

A tourist bus with 11 passengers — mostly American, a few Brits, a young French woman — loses its way in the Namibian desert in southwest Africa and eventually runs out of gas at an abandoned mining station in the middle of nowhere. With only rusty tin cans of carrots and morning dew gathered from the station’s tin rooftops to subsist on, things look pretty grim, especially when the only member of the group who seems to know anything about surviving in the desert takes off trying to find help.

This is a classic melodramatic setup, with ostensibly civilized characters thrown into an extreme situation where it’s only a matter of time before their grasping secret selves emerge and take over. And the motley mix of types is classic too — the weak husband and the sexually frustrated wife (Bruce Davison and Janet McTeer), the meek wife and her seemingly kind husband who morphs into a raging racist (Lia Williams and Chris Walker), an alcoholic Southerner (Brion James), a bimbo (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and the libidinous bully who gets a horrible comeuppance (David Calder). With this crew, all sorts of bad things are waiting to happen.

To stave off disaster for awhile, one of the strandees, a stage actor named Henry (David Bradley), decides that time could be whiled away by putting on a production of King Lear, a play he sees as appropriate to the situation though just why is never clear. True, Lear is Shakespeare at his most primally desolate, but the conceit that it somehow resonates with this desert misadventure never really kicks in. Add to this that the movie’s characters are barely developed beyond our first impressions of them and that we never find out how they came to be in the desert in the first place, and the movie comes to resemble a cross between an episode of “Tales from the Darkside” (they just appeared on the bus one day and they’re going to hell) and an old-fashioned pulp melodrama like John Farrow’s Five Came Back (1939), minus the various back stories and with a few modern, transgressive touches (a dying person gets urinated on, for example).

As if that isn’t grim enough, the whole thing is another result of the Dogma95 movement, that manifesto of willful primitivism whose best results so far have been Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998) and Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). Filmed on digital video by Danish director Kristian Levring, the film has a high-contrast immediacy which holds our attention, even as its dramatic thread tapers off into absurdity. But it’s not just that Levring is too serious to be entertaining, it’s that his heavy-handedness fumbles every cathartic opportunity. After a while, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, it takes a heart of stone not to laugh.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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