Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Films I Love #34: The Angelic Conversation (Derek Jarman, 1985)
Derek Jarman's The Angelic Conversation is the purest and greatest of the filmmaker's experimental works, a lyrical, abstracted visualization of the love sonnets of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's poems, long thought to have been addressed to an anonymous young man, are read aloud on the soundtrack by Judi Dench, accompanied by the expressive ambient industrial music of Jarman's collaborators in Coil, who intersperse their chiming electronic tones with sloshing water sounds and other field recordings. This music — my own introduction to the film, since as a Coil fan I owned the soundtrack long before I ever saw the film itself — is haunting and ethereal, a perfect complement to Dench's mannered readings and the ghostly beauty of Jarman's images. The film constantly suggests the outline of a story, but it is nevertheless largely non-narrative, simply following several young men meandering through desolate, rocky terrain or performing arcane rituals with fire and reflective metals. Jarman shot the footage on 8mm film stock and then blew it up to 35mm, giving everything a fuzzy, grainy, blown-out quality, with extreme contrasts between muddy shadows and blinding flashes of light and color.
The imagery is some of Jarman's most sensual and layered, gorgeous images in which nothing much is happening beyond the play of light on skin, the jittery slow motion that animates these figures, the mutations of a flickering flame played out in closeup frame by frame. The film is an ode to the sensuality and dark beauty of love, and particularly, unsurprisingly, of gay love. Torches flare and pulse in dark caves. Men walk through scorched, foggy landscapes carrying heavy burdens on their backs like Christ. Strange rituals are performed by men whose skin is turned a pale gray by Jarman's video processing; allusions to mythology and spirituality are encoded in these bizarre, stagey interludes. Violent wrestling and struggle slowly softens into caresses and embraces, hatred becoming love. This is a stunning, deeply affecting film, a masterful translation of Shakespeare's evocative sonnets into a series of abstract vignettes whose mystery and suppleness matches the evocative lyricism of the Bard's verse.