I don’t know Derek Jarman as well as I wish. But I’m presuming to offer some thoughts in answer to a question posed on Soundstreams’ blog a few days ago.
I recall Jarman’s contribution to the anthology Aria (1987).
The premise of Don Boyd’s film was to approach several directors to create something resembling music videos, but using opera rather than popular music. Many of the little films feature Leontyne Price. We hear her Liebestod, her “La vergine degli angeli”, her “Depuis le jour”, versions as good as any ever recorded.
The segments are short, with Jarman’s being one of the shortest. Yet it’s arguably a self-portrait, even if it’s a bit perplexing at first glance, not easy to decode.
I recall that when film critic Jay Scott interviewed Stewart Hamilton, trying to get some insights into Aria, especially Jarman’s segment, Hamilton dismissed it as nonsensical: which is what you do when you don’t understand. I regret deeply that I never talked to Scott about it. I see that Scott probably died of AIDS related causes, which is particularly heart-breaking under the circumstances. I wonder if Scott had an inkling what Jarman was doing..?
Let me tell you about it, or at least how I decode it.
First, let’s talk about the music Jarman chose to set. “Depuis le jour” is an ecstatic aria about new love sung by an impetuous young woman, Louise. She is telling us of a first kiss, the first days of a new love. It is very much in the present, about something new and immediate, sensual and physical.
Now, let’s add some additional layers.
Derek Jarman, not unlike Jay Scott would get the plague. Scott died in 1993, while Jarman died in 1994, both of AIDS related diseases.
Jarman chose this short aria, celebrating new love and youth, at a time when I feel certain he was wondering about his future. Perhaps he did not have a diagnosis yet, and was merely watching the plague unfolding around him. Or maybe he knew that he was going to die.
But I know how Jarman listened to “Depuis le jour”, when I watch what he put on film, that so perplexed Stewart Hamilton, that moves me.
We see an old woman (played by Amy Johnson), who resembles a diva onstage enjoying the accolades. We don’t see her perform, we see her bowing repeatedly.
What is this old woman doing in an aria about young love?
Jarman of course knew he wasn’t likely to get to be an old man bowing. Never mind the gender of the woman singing about new love. Jarman surely is talking about himself in this aria. This was an impossible dream, to be old with the death sentence hanging over him.
Let me mention too that Jarman had made a lot of super8 film.
In “Depuis le jour” we switch between the old lady bowing onstage, and we seem to see memories captured on handheld super8. Jarman’s regular collaborator Tilda Swinton is captured in elusive glimpses as though they were memories from youth.
I’ve seen it so many times and it still takes my breath away. As we go back and forth I wonder, are they the same person, or the same soul? perhaps the bowing old woman is not so much a long-lived woman as the soul of the young one, looking back.
It’s poetry so I don’t know that there is any clear answer, and we don’t need one.
This is some stunning footage. The difference in the types of film suggest two different realities. It’s been imitated many times.
I cry every time I see this even when I don’t also think of Jay Scott.
The super8 seems to be a recollection of a life, as seen from the old lady’s perspective, recalling the first days of youthful romance & love. It’s a poignant fantasy for someone who knew that old age wasn’t possible for him.
Whether or not Jarman was being autobiographical or merely poetic, doesn’t matter. I think it’s the most beautiful five minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen.
See for yourself.