Derek Jarman's Caravaggio

The queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994, is one of the artists featured by the streaming channel FilmStruck during Pride Month. We spotlight five of his eclectic and highly original films.

Like the aesthetically suspect filmmaker of Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion, Derek Jarman devotes much of this free-form 1986 meditation on the life and art of Caravaggio to creating living tableaux of the baroque master’s most famous paintings, though the literalizing question of whether the impersonations are “real” enough (they are for the most part, the Deposition staging uncannily so) tends to obscure the subtler things Jarman’s doing here. In a sense, Caravaggio‘s less about its ostensible subject than Jarman’s own homoerotic vision, of eros turned inward, toward private fantasy and longing (the film unfolds in a kind of hermetic mental box, with scarcely a hint of an open-air world beyond the closed-in sets). The playing around with period yields some clever anachronistic touches, and the stylized theatricality makes up for occasional bouts of clunky camerawork. With Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton, and Michael Gough. 93 min. —Pat Graham

The Last of England
Derek Jarman’s kaleidoscopic experimental film (1987)—a dark, poetic meditation on Thatcher England—is visionary cinema at its best. Shot in Super-8, transferred to video for additional touches and processing, then transferred back to 35-millimeter, this work combines more than half a century of home movies of Jarman’s family, a documentary record of industrial and ecological ruin, and sustained looks at Jarman regulars Tilda Swinton and Spencer Leigh. The often astonishing results become increasingly spellbinding as the work proceeds. Over an evocative narration by Jarman (which includes apocalyptic quotes from such poets as T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg) and stirring use of music and sound effects, images in black and white, sepia, and color explode and merge with mesmerizing intensity and build toward a powerful personal statement. 92 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Edward II
My candidate for best movie by the late Derek Jarman is this politically potent, deliberately shocking, anachronistic adaptation of the Christopher Marlowe play (1991); Jarman rethinks it in terms of contemporary English homophobia and the Thatcher-Reagan legacy. Shooting his spare settings in crisp 35-millimeter images, Jarman gives the tragedy a seriousness and potency that puts Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books to shame. Coscripted by Stephen McBride and Ken Butler; with Steve Waddington, Andrew Tiernan, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, and Jerome Flynn. The music is performed by the Elektra Quartet (and at one climactic juncture, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics performs Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”). 87 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

This Brechtian biopic (1993) by the English filmmaker Derek Jarman about Ludwig Wittgenstein encompasses everything from the philosopher’s pampered childhood to his friendships with Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes and his relationships with rough young men. This is quite probably the best of Jarman’s narrative features, presented in a series of spare but powerful tableaux—beautifully and thoughtfully designed, like Joseph Cornell boxes with black backgrounds. With Karl Johnson, Michael Gough, and Tilda Swinton. 72 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Derek Jarman’s last feature (1993), made when he was dying of AIDS and losing his eyesight, has only a single, continuous image consisting of the color blue, but the soundtrack is unusually dense, making use of four separate speaking voices (including those of Jarman and Tilda Swinton), a multifaceted score by Simon Fisher Turner, other pieces of music, and numerous sound effects. (The soundtrack came out on CD, and the text has been published as a book.) Given Jarman’s previous work, it isn’t surprising that he didn’t go gently into that good night; much of the narration consists of him raging (or simply complaining), poetically and prosaically, about his worsening physical condition and other facets of his daily life. In effect the film becomes his own epitaph and tombstone. 79 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum