The Queer Cinema of Derek Jarman

Niall Richardson

I.B. Taurus — 2008 / 246 pages / Paperback / ISBN: 9781845115371 / £15.99 — $26.95

IN BRIEF: This study explores Jarman’s connections to gender, history, and politics.


Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman (1942–1994) was a rare artist who succeeded, at times fabulously, in several media: painting, theatre and film design, poetry and prose (some critics consider him one of the best postwar British writers). But he is best known for his eleven films, including the landmark homoerotic historical drama Sebastiane (1976), the experimental biopic Caravaggio (1986), and a spellbinding adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play about the doomed gay monarch, Edward II (1991).

The Queer Cinema of Derek Jarman by Niall Richardson, Lecturer in Film at the University of Sussex, is a fascinating study of Jarman’s major films, that provides a much-needed focus on their connections to gender, history, and politics.

There is much to appreciate, and enjoy, in Richardson’s book, beginning with the clarity with which he does the seemingly impossible: provide a lucid overview of the sprawling, contentious field of queer studies. He accomplishes that in the first two chapters, that total almost half of the book, and then relates those provocative ideas to several of Jarman’s key pictures. As Richardson demonstrates, “For Jarman, queer was not simply something to shock the public or something to appeal to gay audiences; it was his personal, political and artistic life.”

At various points in The Queer Cinema of Derek Jarman — that is arranged by theme rather than chronology — Richardson discusses such foundational thinkers as Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault. In the first chapter, he provides exemplary summaries, and sharp analyses, of principal works of queer theory from the 1980s and beyond, including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire and Epistemology of the Closet, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Jonathan Dollimore’s Sexual Dissidence. With erudition and wit, Richardson lays out the evolving dialogue between these, and many other, philosophical, psychoanalytical, and politicized thinkers. He often makes even the most abstruse concepts compelling, and that’s no mean feat. Richardson has a gift for making us feel like participants in this heated, and ongoing, debate about the nature of sexuality identity and how it’s enmeshed in history, right up to today’s political ferment.

Perhaps Richardson’s, like Jarman’s, greatest strength is that he never loses sight of the fact that these ideas aren’t just highfalutin abstractions to bandy about in an ivory tower. Concepts of sexual and social identity define our real lives; and if we do not understand them, then we are nothing more than their prisoners (like, say, both Edward II, and later his foes, at the end of Jarman’s stunningly reimagined version of Marlowe’s tragedy).

After Richardson lays out the full range of theoretical background, he applies those theories to major works of New Queer Cinema, that flourished in its “classic” phase in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as seminal earlier filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. He focuses on three films, two that I admire immensely — Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) — and one, Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992), that based on Richardson’s enthusiasm I’ll resee. Araki’s filmmaking did not seem nearly as accomplished and powerful as Van Sant’s and Kalin’s — and mashing up AIDS with some French New Wave devices and naming your lead characters Jon and Luke after Jean-Luc Godard didn’t cut it — but Richardson lays out an argument for the reach of Araki’s ideas.

One of Richardson’s most impressive readings, that comprises all of Chapter 7, involves incisive comparisons between Carvaggio and the fountainhead of queer cinema, Un Chant d’amour (1950), the only film made by novelist/ playwright/ poet/ convicted felon Jean Genet (novel Our Lady of the Flowers, play The Balcony), as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s stunning adaptation of Genet’s novel Querelle (1982). Richardson reveals how these works don’t just subvert conventional sexual identities but transcend them. This chapter was so successful that I wish Richardson had hooked up Jarman with another multi-talented artist/ author/ filmmaker whom he ackowledged as a major influence, Pier Paolo Pasolini. He could have brought together, say, Sebastiane and both Accattone (1961) and The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), The Angelic Conversation and Teorema 1968), Edward II and Oedipus Rex (1967); Pasolini’s horrific masterpiece, Salò (1976), that updates a Marquis de Sade novels to the last days of Mussolini’s regime, could suggestively be invoked for comparison with any of Jarman’s films, shedding light on both of these extraordinary artists.

In the book’s second half, Richardson applies the ideas and cinematic traditions he’s explored in the first half to his analyses of five key Jarman pictures: Sebastiane (focusing on the complex nature of masochism, including its religious and political dimensions), Edward II (surprisingly emphasizing Tilda Swinton’s campy portrayal of the queen and the minor role of her and Edward’s young son, the future king, in exposing the fissures within mandated gender roles), Caravaggio (exploring connections between sometimes fluid sexual identities, class structures, and power), The Angelic Conversation (looking at, as Richardson summarizes, “the tension between desire circumscribed by the body versus desire beyond the gendered body”), and Blue (challenging not only sexual identity politics but the very concept of identity itself, as Jarman confronts his impending AIDS-related death).

Now we come to what may, or may not, be a limitation of Richardson’s book, depending on your personal bent. Although the intellectual and sexual/political background is presented exceptionally well, Richardson typically does not include close visual analyses of Jarman’s films. When he does, as in his reading of the bitchy art critic Baglione in Caravaggio — who bangs out his scathing (seventeenth century) review on an anachronistic (twentieth century) typewriter — his interpretation is first-rate. He dissects the many “palimpsestic” layers of meaning that Jarman encodes, from David’s 1793 painting “Death of Marat” to the swirling implications that pry “open the chain of signification itself.” But for the most part, Richardson — brilliantly — relates to the films primarily as intellectual constructs. There is little mention of visual dynamics — how Jarman’s painterly compositions use shape, line, form, texture, color, and movement both within shots and between (through editorial rhythm) — to inform his cinematic dramas.

The reproduced shot featuring Baglione highlights a problem with the book itself — that has nothing to do with Richardson’s analyses. The film stills are distractingly sub par. Not because they are (economically) presented in monochrome but because they are blurry, and worse, rarely in the original aspect ratio (the width to height ‘shape’) that Jarman shot; a few, like the one of Baglione are hideously squeezed. Totally baffling, especially since the book itself is of genuine quality, with a stylishly designed cover, high-quality paper and a solid binding. While I’m nitpicking, let me note that among a sprinkling of typographical errors there is one of surreal brilliance: instead of “bulging” we find “bugling biceps” — can you hear their brassy clarion call?! — from Chapter 3 “Men’s Bodies 1: Rough Trade and Sugar Daddies” (in the section on how Caravaggio relates to porn films: that is just one aspect of Richardson’s multi-layered analysis of Jarman’s most popular film).

Despite Richardson’s stated focus on Jarman’s cinema, his study would be even more valuable if he had also worked in analyses of Jarman’s interrelated paintings and prose-poetry memoirs (several volumes of which are cited in the far-ranging bibliography). Those non-filmic works, with their sometimes collage-like effects comparable to The Last of England and Blue (one of the films that Richardson explores in depth), also contribute to Jarman’s vision of queer power and potentiality.

At the end of his introduction, Richardson notes that “I hope this book… conveys the sense of pleasure which the films offer and doesn’t reduce the films to comic-book illuminations of queer theory.”

He succeeds admirably in his goals; and I recommend this book not only to people interested in Jarman but to anyone who wants a provocative introduction to queer theory and history.

Armed with Jarman’s films and the wealth of ideas in this book, you’ll be ready for fiery, but well-informed, discussions — with friends or even just with yourself — about the nature of sexual identity, political complexities, and how Jarman and you personally fit into the bigger picture of (malleable) social reality.

LGBTQ+ Literature
Jim’s Book Reviews / LGBTQ+ Literature

Reviewed December 23, 2008 / Updated February 27, 2022

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