The Garden (1990)


First time with Derek Jarman.

Gardens are claimed spaces; marshalled and worked-upon but essentially open and flowing, personal and impersonal. “I want to share this emptiness with you” says J over frenetic opening footage of a floodlit set, swimming dizzy like a memory, “this wilderness of failure.” The Garden is explicitly presented as an alternative to directed and directing narrative; a negative space of uncertainty. A retreat, a holing-up inside the mind. Yet it has a lot to say and buried themes slowly surface and coalesce.

Tilda Swinton as a Madonna, a paragon mobbed by paparazzi in balaclavas like terrorists. She burns out and is left scrubbing the rocks, sifting; isolated in a cabin with a scream and a candle. A Tiresias figure: when the tragic couple above are introduced (their story constituting the closest thing to a narrative through-line) they throw rocks into the sea idyllic, sunshine idleness like A Single Man; cuts to TS wind-battered grubbing for mushrooms. Boys fighting with pillows; TS bitterly plucking a pheasant in the dark.

Frequent use of green-screen staging like a Platonic cave: the fire of ambient scenes – Super 8 burning hurtling – projecting onto portentous women running fingers round wine glasses, a Spanish dance upon the table, later scenes of distress. Conscious revelling in artificiality. (To me this ties in with a theme of broken promises and dashed expectations, the naïvety of the couple as fragile self-representation) Later scenes of boys washing disturbed, clouds over and the eldest furiously pushes J himself and his camera away.

The Think Pink song is amazing, dazzling jingle over a backdrop of a gay rights march (in Cambridge?). A hanged Judas, gnawed tongue purple and exposed, a ponytailed suited man with a spotless motorcycle using his corpse to flog credit cards.

The seemingly more personal memories are often the best: the public school boy frantically spinning a globe on that table while old masters slap their canes or open-close books like automatons; a sprinting PE-teacher furiously blowing a whistle (later horrifyingly interpolated as a tuxedoed observer to a stoning in dresses, those paparazzi flashing. – these image bleedthroughs string scenes together and add to the aurora of nightmare)

Environmental disaster. Jesus beneath the pylons. “This year winter never came…”

Lynchian feel throughout and the apotheosis is the cafe. The couple silent, gagged and bruised as police build simian laughter; smearing treacle on the captive condemned, tar and feathers as they bellow operatically. (the main guy looks like BOB) This is horrifying.

The poem at the end is really heartbreaking, and for me redeemed any discomfort with the occasionally bald exhibition of imagery. “Old age came quickly for my frosted generation.” Jarman in his garden awaiting his death from AIDS complications, four years after the film four years after diagnosis. Writhing on a bed pushed out to sea. Turning the pages of a journal, scenes of industry, red clouds piling past overhead.



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