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LEAD: ''Keep thou the napkin and go boast of this.'' - ''Henry VI, Part III.'' ''Keep thou the napkin and go boast of this.'' - ''Henry VI, Part III.'' SEVERAL years ago, the Cannes Film Festival was brightened by the report that Menahem Golan, of Cannon Films, and Jean-Luc Godard had signed an agreement on a napkin calling for Cannon to produce an adaptation of ''King Lear'' to be written by Norman Mailer, directed by Mr. Mailer in the title role co-starring with his daughter, Kate Mailer, as Cordelia. Mailer did, indeed, write a legitimate update of the play in which Lear became Don Learo, a Mafia capo. Mailer and his daughter flew back to the United States on the Concorde while ''the daughter's boyfriend returned in economy.'' Whatever happened to the napkin has not been recorded. Godard eventually made a movie that opens today at the Quad Cinema.
In time, the film went into production in Nyon, Switzerland, though only for one day. This ''King Lear'' is a late Godardian practical joke, sometimes spiteful and mean, sometimes very beautiful, sometimes teetering on the edge of coherence and brilliance, often amateurish and, finally, as sad and embarrassing as the spectacle of a great, dignified man wearing a fishbowl over his head to get a laugh.
Meredith hops around with an emerald green butterfly net. Godard is at his wit's end, there's a brief sequence in a New York cutting room with Woody Allen.
Looking awfully patient and wearing a black T-shirt with ''Picasso'' scrawled across the front, Mr.
Allen is seen editing two pieces of film, first with safety pins, then a needle and thread.
Mostly the two just sit at a table in the otherwise empty dining room looking glum and at loose ends.
Occasionally they speak lines from the real ''King Lear,'' which the eavesdropping Shakespeare records in his notebook.