Yes, I know. This has been a very long time coming. About a year and half.
I started this ongoing review of Derek Jarman's films back in February 2009 and you can find the reviews of Jubilee and Sebastiane here in The Films of Derek Jarman Part One and the coverage of The Tempest and The Angelic Conversation in The Films of Derek Jarman Part Two. It's taken me since June 2009 to get back to these posts so I must apologise for the delay.
Anyway, without further ado, let's take a look at Caravaggio, from 1986, and The Last of England, released in 1987. Two films in very stark and distinct contrast.
It took Jarman seven long years to raise the money for his film about the seventeenth century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The script for Caravaggio allegedly went through seventeen drafts and when the television screening of Sebastiane on Channel 4 provoked the outrage of Mary Whitehouse, a funding deal with the channel was scuppered by the media's hysteria over the purchase of Jarman's early films for broadcast.
...a meditation on the life and mortality of an artist, the complex nature of sexuality and the interconnection between art and commerceEventually, with funding from the BFI and a mollified Channel 4, Jarman was finally able to get the film into production. Shot in 35mm, the first time that Jarman had used the standard cinematic format, Caravaggio offers a meditation on the life and mortality of an artist, the complex nature of sexuality and the interconnection between art and commerce. It did not completely meet the expectations of the critics at the time who seemed to decry that Jarman's more experimental approach had been blunted by the desire to present the narrative in a more linear and formal way.
Granted, Caravaggio is perhaps his best known and most accessible work, certainly the most widely seen of his films. Although it was made on a small budget, the combination of Gabriel Beristain's cinematography, lush visuals on 35mm, and a recognisable number of notable actors providing full-bloodied and sympathetic performances shifts our appreciation and perception of the film.
The story, focusing on the triangular relationship between Caravaggio, the prostitute Lena and her lover Ranunccio, is framed by a number of flashbacks and flashforwards. The narrative flits between Caravaggio's half remembered childhood, his impending death in Porto Ercole, the purchase of his servant Jerusalame and his artistic career that spans his rent-boy youth selling his body and his skills as artist/commodity, his patronage by the Church and the Pope (a delicious little cameo from Jarman regular Jack Birkett) and to his search for love in his mature loneliness amidst the desire for both Lena and Ranunccio.
However, the visual richness of the film is accompanied by a deft use of voice-over narration, incongruities such as calculators (a conspicuous symbol of the film's debate about commerce and art), typewriters, motorbikes and a spectacular use of Caravaggio's paintings to unpick the psychological nature of the story and symbolism.
...dazzling light, in a repeated motif in the film, forces the spectator to flinch away from the screenGold and golden light is seen as a major visual symbol in the film - representational of the money that not only secures commissions for religious art but also that which purchases and seduces people. Coins constantly spill from or are placed in mouths and hands as 'filthy lucre' to buy off, to grease the palms of lovers and friends. As Ranunccio poses for a canvas, Caravaggio conflates the commerce of art with that of sexual seduction as he places a stream of coins in the model's hands and finally offers a 'golden kiss' and passes a coin between their mouths.
Golden light bathes the tableaux in the films as the mute servant Jerusalame hoists up golden reflectors to create the chiaroscuro required by Caravaggio's painterly eye. The golden hues of the film throw out positive and negative reflections and the drowning of Lena is set against the golden reflections of the river (the Thames filmed at sunrise) where dazzling light, in a repeated motif in the film, forces the spectator to flinch away from the screen.
The triangular web of desire at the heart of the film can be read as a complex queering of the film where gay and straight identities are not what they seem and it instead offers a confusion and contradiction where as Timothy Murray argues, "the film's sometimes contradictory slide between homosocial and homosexual relations illustrates the instability of any gay-male political identity."
The flux of desire between Caravaggio, Lena and Ranunccio is epitomised in the one of the final scenes where we see Caravaggio beg a favour of the Church to free Ranunccio from prison after he has been convicted of Lena's murder. When Ranunccio reveals that he murdered Lena in an act of homosexual desire for Caravaggio, the painter slits his throat. Gay desire is claimed by the straight-identified Ranunccio but is then rejected by a troubled Caravaggio who acts in the name of his desire for Lena.
The anachronisms and the voice-over narratives and the blurring of identities and sexual objectification are the way that Jarman impresses himself upon the historical construction of Caravaggio the painter. The poetic monologues that Jarman places in the mouth and mind of Caravaggio are partly his own imposition upon the scene and one of the film's mechanisms, allied to flashback and flashforward, to denote the shifting of time and space.
...a rich soup of visual symbolism and allegoryAs Steve Dillion notes in Derek Jarman and Lyric Film, there is also a third element to this equation - the actor Nigel Terry. Between them, the poetic nature of Caravaggio is maintained and all three become one voice in the film. It is no coincidence that Terry would then go on to feature in a number of later Jarman films as an extension of Jarman himself, particularly as narrator in The Last of England and Blue.
In the midst of this, Jarman deconstructs and reconstructs the major paintings, using various tableaux to show how the artist used people from the street to model as Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and other religious figures and as he does so the film offers a rich soup of visual symbolism and allegory.
The paintings expose many of the film's ideas about identity and desire. Caravaggio's own troubled sexual identity, the flux of desire between Lena, Ranunccio and the painter, the blurring of gender when Caravaggio is seen to use an androgynous character, Pipo (and played by actress Dawn Archibald) as the model for one of his most provocative paintings, the naked cupid of 'Profane Love' all explore the mortality and redemption of the artist.
In flashback he sees himself as a child, dressed as an angel for an Easter pageant and his appearance mirroring aspects of his later paintings, and the film concludes with an extraordinary moment as the young Caravaggio pulls back a curtain over a doorway only to see his deceased adult self recreated within a tableaux of Caravaggio's 'The Entombment of Christ'. This cycle is a perfect moment of visual symbolism used in the film's attempt to depict Caravaggio's life and death as an example of Jungian individuation - the completion and fulfillment of the self.
It is also Jarman's own journey and as Rowland Wyver puts it so eloquently in his book British Film Makers: Derek Jarman, Caravaggio's life and death, much as Jarman's own "is a final reminder that the journey towards self-realisation takes place through the very material and commercial medium of painting - or film."
A beautiful and complex film with a stunning central performance from Nigel Terry as Caravaggio, it deconstructs the nature of the cinematic bio-pic and rather like Love is the Devil, the John Maybury film about Francis Bacon, it is as much about the desire to create and destroy, and about Jarman's own artistically inspired view of life, sexuality and death, that informs this study. The film is also complimented by Simon Fisher-Turner's multi-layered soundtrack that combines found sources, sound effects, religious and contemporary music, and woven in superbly with the painterly imagery supplied by Beristain.
Region 2 / Cert 18 / BFIVD726 / 1.85:1 (16 x 9 anamorphic) / Mono / 89 mins
- Specially commissioned interviews with Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry and Christopher Hobbs
- Commentary by the film's cinematographer Gabriel Beristain
- Video and audio interviews with Derek Jarman
- Gallery of storyboards, sketches and Jarman's notebooks
- Booklet with essay by Colin McCabe and interview with costume designer, Sandy Powell
The film seems to operate as a stream of consciousness that connected Jarman's own past with the malaise of a 1980s Britain which had seen Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government re-elected three times against a background of hard-nosed monetarist policies, mass unemployment, the dismantling of union power, inner-city riots and deprivation, the Falklands War and the spectre of AIDS.
It is not merely a 'state of the nation' address but more a 'state of mind' diagnosis conducted by Jarman on his own relationship to Britishness, nationhood and self-hood, particularly to the connections to his own family with the aftermath of the recent death of his father.
It is both a personal film in which Jarman meditates on these values and it possibly represents the last cry of a disenfranchised section of the populace. It makes no concessions to its audience, it speaks for Jarman certainly but who the film is intended for is very uncertain, and at nearly 90 minutes can be tough going when faced with no narrative, no characters and a theme that isn't readily accessible.
...the last stand of those who truly represent so-called British valuesVisually and editorially it is an impromptu collage of images, a mash-up of colour, black and white, Super-8, video manipulation and is therefore a volte face from the formalist cinema of Caravaggio and very much a return to the freewheeling experimentation of the early Super-8 shorts and the video based work of both The Angelic Conversation and the pop video montages he made for The Smiths. Many critics found it indigestible but others note it as key film of the 1980s.
The title of the film, a nostalgic reference to Ford Madox Brown's painting of the same title that saw a poor family departing on a boat and leaving the white cliffs of Dover and England behind, suggests the death of a national spirit, the last stand of those who truly represent so-called British values that becomes Jarman's memento mori to more idyllic times as he sifts through what he sees as the remnants of a dying culture.
Jarman appears to be attempting to find a way back into the past, essentially through the home movies made by his parents and grandparents, but by the end of the film discovers that there is no way of recreating the idyll of his childhood and the least he can do is to acknowledge that he is now as his father was, frightened of the society and culture that he finds himself in and willing to withdraw. His master narration, a series of poetic monologues read by his alter-ego Nigel Terry, concludes that the only retreat is back into the imagination having failed to return 'home'.
It is a film both personalised by the home movie footage and objectified as a documentary through the rest of the manipulated stock footage and filmed material. John Hill notes that the film, in British Cinema in the 1980s, can "be linked to a tradition of British 'poetic-documentary' and to the work of Humphrey Jennings with its mix of realism, surrealism and national allegory, in particular."
The film unfolds as a series of set pieces, some very rapidly and breathtakingly edited, that depict a decaying city and those that live on its fringes. There is a highly symbolic sequence at the start of the film that shows a young man stamping on and then masturbating over the Caravaggio painting of 'Profane Love' suggesting some kind of pollution of the ideal, a purging of the cultural impulses that authored Jarman's previous film.
...apocalyptic bonfires burnThere are various scenes that punctuate the film: an estranged couple who are eventually rounded up by masked soldiers and where the young man is executed by firing squad; a huddled mass of refugee-like figures (many of them played by other British artists and film-makers) being guarded by armed paramilitary figures; a uniformed soldier being made love to by a drunken youth and both spreadeagled on a Union Jack; a bride slashing her wedding dress to pieces. Throughout all of these scenes, black smoke pours across the screen, apocalyptic bonfires burn and flares fill desolate buildings with blinding light and choking fumes. It is a hellish vision.
The Union Jack sequence is the antithesis of the erotic impulse in similar scenes in The Angelic Conversation, disturbing in that it plays out as a contradiction, provoking particularly conservative views of the period about patriotism and Britishness denying the reality of homosexual desire and also showing how exhausted this hypocrisy and the articulation of such desires has become.
The balaclava clad paramilitaries are also contentious figures, suggesting the IRA of the period or members of terrorist organisations, symbolising the politically charged use of the army and the police during the most volatile periods of Thatcher's time in power. It is a view supported by the documentary footage of the Brixton riots and a sequence that mimics either the Queen or Thatcher speaking to the troops about the success of the Falklands campaign, all blended into the collage of imagery.
Many of the images hark back to Jubilee and the final sequence of the film echoes the Super-8 footage of Jordan dancing, spinning around by a blazing bonfire. Here, Tilda Swinton as the bride, presumably of the Spencer Leigh figure seen executed, shreds her wedding dress against the sunset and the flames of a fire. Diamanda Galas's lament wails and rages around her on the soundtrack. Gradually the images are replaced by a calm, silent moment as a boat, illuminated by a flare, rows away and carries what seem to be survivors or exiles away from this hellish world fuelled by violence, destruction, war, propaganda and elitism. It connects directly back to the Ford Madox Brown painting itself.
It's a very difficult film to watch because Jarman is clearly very angry at what he sees around him even though questionably you could claim he is observing from his own middle-class elitist position. However, as Rowland Wymer concludes the film probably chimed with so many because of its desire to broker political and social connections across generations of estranged families and communities where, "the authoritarianism of the Thatcher years had made Jarman feel like a stranger in his own country though paradoxically this had also helped him reconnect emotionally with the figure who created his 'aversion to authority' - his father." The bride, the boat full of exiles and Jarman's reconciliation with his father's post-war anger are all redolent of a hopeful quest for that Jungian desire of a fully integrated life.
This intense rejection of the values of Thatcherism explodes across the screen and is married to an equally emotive soundtrack featuring Barry Adamson, Mayo Thompson, Andy Gill, Marianne Faithfull and the aforementioned Galas, and is mixed into an extraordinary soundscape overseen by Simon Fisher-Turner that forges a myriad of connections within this improvisational cocktail of cinematic dream-time.
The Last of England (1987)
Region 2 / Cert 15 / 2NDVD 3055 / 1.75:1 (letterbox) / Stereo / 87 mins
- Commentary with producer James MacKay, lighting designer Christopher Hughes, production designer Christopher Hobson and sound designer Simon Fisher-Turner
- Tilda Swinton - 'In the Spirit of Derek Jarman' - Edinburgh Film Festival 2002
- Extract from 'There We Are John...' interview with Derek Jarman
- Super-8 short - 'A Journey to Avebury'