Friday, February 20, 2009


Derek Jarman's Caravaggio presents itself as a loose, poeticized biography of the famed Baroque painter Michelangelo de Caravaggio, but in fact Jarman appears to be using his subject as a gateway into ruminations on art, love, violence and religion. The film reflects far more of Jarman than it does of Caravaggio, even with the painter at its center and his paintings restaged in elegant, shakily static tableaux vivants. There is little trace of a conventional biopic here: the broad outlines of Caravaggio's life are visible, but the elliptical, time-jumping narrative structure Jarman has chosen, all of it filtered through his subject's deathbed memories, ensures that this is anything but a staid, objective account of a life. This is something much messier, much more chaotic, but also in its way truer — if not to the facts, then to the spirit of the rebellious painter whose wild, passionate art so shook up the conventions of his time.

Dexter Fletcher plays the young Caravaggio, cocky and swaggering and sexually frank, somewhere in between a painter and a hustler, offering himself as an "art object" (this postmodern phrase the first of Jarman's purposeful anachronisms) as much as his paintings. Perhaps for this reason, he soon earns the attention of the prominent Church official Cardinal Del Monte (Michael Gough), who seems to appreciate him as much for his cocksure eroticism as for his equally sensual paintings. Jarman cuts fluidly between the scenes with Fletcher and the later scenes with Nigel Terry as the mature painter. With his hard, flashing eyes and chiseled face, Terry is an electrifying presence, delivering a performance that consistently hints at and develops the depths of Caravaggio's turbulent character. The film is about art as looking, art codified in the gaze, and Terry's gaze has an impossible intensity and ferocity.

The scenes of Caravaggio at work are crisply edited, built around exchanges of glances: Caravaggio works in this film by arranging tableaux of living models who perfectly hold the poses of his paintings while he stares at them. The painter spends more time looking, observing, than he does actually putting brush to canvas — so much so that in one scene, after Caravaggio has spent seemingly endless minutes looking at the scene he's arranged, Del Monte bursts out laughing when the painter finally, tentatively, touches his brush to the painting to adjust a minor detail. Jarman, one of the most visual of filmmakers, clearly possesses this same painterly sensibility: the instinct to look, to stare intently, to soak up every detail of a scene before finally attempting to capture its essence. In the scenes of Caravaggio painting, Jarman cuts methodically between the painter and the models, who sometimes meet his gaze, sometimes look away as dictated by their pose. Implicit in this exchange of looks is also the painter's eroticizing of his subjects, a homoerotic desire that shows through even in paintings where Caravaggio has transformed a worldly young man into a pouty, cherubic angel or warrior saint. Jarman aligns himself with the painter in this by populating his film with pretty young men who are as much subjects of the filmmaker's appreciative gaze as they are of the painter's brush: it is one more way in which Jarman seems to be telling his own story as much as Caravaggio's.

Among Caravaggio's models, none are more special to him than the rough-and-tumble boxer and hoodlum Ranuccio (Sean Bean), who Caravaggio makes a frequent subject in his work. Soon enough, painter and model are involved in a complicated love triangle along with Ranuccio's lover Lena (Tilda Swinton), whom both men love and desire as much as they do each other. In some of the film's most extraordinary and erotically charged scenes, Lena first watches as Caravaggio, painting Ranuccio, seduces the model with his unyielding gaze. The scene is soon enough reversed when Lena tenderly kisses the painter while Ranuccio watches from the background, his expression controlled only with apparent effort; it's hard to tell who he's more jealous of. This was Swinton's first film, and her first of many for Jarman, and she delivers a typically nuanced and effective performance, with her dirty ruffian's face and bold manner. Lena is a ragged, filthy but sensual street woman, with a tremendous shock of golden hair hidden beneath her rags as though waiting for someone to acknowledge her hidden nobility and beauty.

This is a lush, sumptuous film, preoccupied with the sensuous qualities of naked flesh, the thick folds of expensive fabric, and vibrant color. Each of Jarman's frames is as carefully composed as one of Caravaggio's paintings, still life images in which the barely perceptible quivering of the model-actors' bodies betrays the life within these tableaux. Jarman approaches Caravaggio's life not as an historian or biographer, but as a poet, extracting the essence of the painter's art and times: the homoeroticism of his paintings of young men; the violence and criminality of his life; his clean, clear treatment of color, so closely aligned with Jarman's own aesthetic.

Individual scenes are conceived, for the most part, not to advance the story but to suggest the themes and ideas at its heart. Thus Jarman's camera lingers on a long silent scene in which one of Caravaggio's models, growing bored with posing, performs limber gymnastics, stretching and doing splits and nimbly pirouetting. In the corner of the frame, looking on with a mysterious smile, is a painting of a nude cherub that this model had just finished posing for: the wings mounted on the wall provide a background to these calisthenics. A costume ball where Caravaggio unveils several of his paintings is equally evocative, providing an excuse for Jarman to fill the screen with grotesqueries and lavish details. Even when Caravaggio meets the Pope (Jack Birkett) for a private audience, His Holiness winds up being a fey, sneering monster whose eyes roll in different directions as he casually drawls about manipulation and control. The film is playful and often surprisingly funny, but also hypnotic and dreamlike, a fantasy about the relationships between art, desire and power rather than an accurate document of Caravaggio's reality — a fact that Jarman not-so-subtly suggests with his bold anachronisms, peppering the film with modern calculators, electric lights and typewriters as though scrawling his signature messily across a period masterpiece. These discontinuities confirm that the film is not simply a story about a long ago painter, but explicitly an attempt to look back and evaluate Caravaggio from a modern perspective.


Tony Dayoub said...

Hey Ed,

Loved this post. I nominated for a LAMB chop. Good luck.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot Tony, I appreciate it!