Anyone who's ever broken down without a Little Chef in sight will appreciate the frustration of being stuck in the middle of nowhere. And Danish director Kristian Levring takes this feeling, amplifies it a thousand-fold and applies it to the latest film to emerge from the Dogme stable.
The austerity of the Dogme rules (no props allowed that aren't found on location, hand-held cameras only...) certainly works in Levring's favour, allowing him to build a picture as lean, edgy and strung out as the estranged bus passengers. Coming across like a kind of Ice Cold In Alex meets Festen, this is quite simply fat-free film-making.
Under the unfocused gaze of a hermit, the passengers spend their first night getting drunk and the rest of the time slowly losing hope and sanity. Relationships crumble, new bonds form but they continue to rehearse King Lear, ironically falling victim to the jealousy and creeping insanity that characterises Shakespeare's play.
The mixed cast is uniformly excellent, offering convincing performances of gradual disintegration. But the stand-out is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Gina, a seeming bimbo much lusted after by the men in the group, who play Lear's exiled daughter Cordelia. Leigh - displaying great scene presence in the face of Dogme's technical limitations - takes this apparent airhead and makes her tremendously sympathetic. But perhaps more striking than any one performance are Levring's shots of the African desert. Given that he shot on video then transferred to 35mm film, it's amazing that he achieved such spine-tingling vistas.
Apart from a few confusing plot elements (Henry intones mysteriously into a dictaphone), The King Is Alive is more than a worthy addiction to the Dogme canon - it's a haunting, gripping film in its own right.
Dogme plus Shakespeare could have equalled extreme pretension, but Kristian Levring transcends the "experimental" tag with a chilling, thought-provoking drama, featuring superb cinematography and a great performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh.