The Devil's Tomb
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Derek Jarman's filmic essay on his own blindness and impending death is a monochromatic elegy to a director's loss of vision
In 1993, there must have been something in the water. The same year that saw the release of Derek Jarman's monochromatic swansong Blue was also to usher in the similarly-hued opener to the Three Colours trilogy. Yet where Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue was a visually baroque evocation of a colour in its many moods, Jarman opted for a decidedly more minimalist approach. Even the image featured on the cover of Artificial Eye's DVD release - Jarman's profile silhouetted against a blue background - offers more stimulus for the eye than anything seen in the film itself.
Apart from the opening and closing credits which are a bruised blue and black, in Jarman's Blue, blue is all you see. And not even 40 shades of blue, but a single, unchanging tone, whose only variation is the odd accidental scratch or flaw that has marred the film's reel. So static is the film's ocular impact that instead of a more conventional cinematographer, Blue merely credits a 'still' (note the singular) photographer, Liam Daniel.
Made a year before Jarman's death from Aids, as complications of the illness were causing the director to lose his eyesight, Blue presents viewers with the colour that Jarman claimed would overwhelm his field of vision during the treatments that he received for his detached retinas. More metaphorically, it is the colour associated with the deep funk of loss, with the musical rhythms of complaint, and with the infinity, not to mention serenity, of sky and sea - all associations which the film exploits with abandon.
The blue screen is also, of course, cinema's equivalent of a blank page - a neutral background onto which special effects and digital imagery can subsequently be superimposed - and Jarman helps us fill this visual void with the aid of a densely overlaid soundscape of noises, music and words that combine to evoke their own drama in the mind's eye.
The spoken text is an episodic assemblage of childhood memories, diary entries, eulogies for friends lost, social commentary, poetic musings, discourses on sexual politics, reports on the advance of illness, aesthetic digressions and exotic escapist fantasies, all narrated by Jarman regulars John Quentin, Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton, as well as by Jarman himself, to the accompaniment of invocatory chimes, sound effects, sung choruses, and an ambient score (by Jarman regular Simon Fisher-Turner and various other artists). Jarman's themes are sex, death (his own, his friends', the world's, cinema's), and naturally the colour blue itself, recurring in the script almost as insistently as on screen.
It is difficult not to be moved by so naked an account of personal disintegration, and Jarman's witty, sardonic voice is always well worth hearing - but unfortunately all this wins only half-marks for Blue which, for all the audacious simplicity of its visual conceit, might still have worked better as an experimental radio play.
Faced with this film's unforgiving, monotonous blue, most viewers will prefer to close their eyes, letting the soundtrack - and their own imagination - take over. No doubt Blue is a bold and individual final statement from one of England's most iconoclastic artists of the twentieth century, but it is a pity that the film is such a half-cocked effort within its own medium - all sound and no fireworks - so that when Jarman is heard asking, "If I lose half my sight, will my vision be halved?", the answer would appear, tragically, to be yes.
Blue is an ironic, acerbic and poignant swansong for Jarman - but it forgets, however necessarily, to be cinema for anyone but the blind.
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