Director: Derek Jarman (UK). Year of Release: 1986
Early 17th Century, somewhere in Italy. As period music plays in the background, we see a list of names, many of which belong elsewhere. There’s Dexter Flexter from Press Gang, Nigel Davenport from Rentaghost, Sean Bean from Sharpe, Robbie Coltrane from Nuns on the Run, er, Cracker. And Tilda Swinton from absolutely everywhere. There’s also Garry Cooper, but I doubt it’s that one. Welcome to a Derek Jarman film.
Caravaggio tells the life story of the eponymous painter, only it doesn’t, not really. I’ve seen some reviewers tie themselves up in knots trying to explain how various scenes from the film reflect and/or misrepresent equivalent scenes from Caravaggio’s life, and how his paintings are re-enacted on screen. I have neither the biographical nor the artistic knowledge to be able to write that sort of review. Besides which, I’m not sure that’s the point of the film.
On the one hand there is plenty of plot – from a bisexual ménage à trois to a bit of murder, from some boxing, to a deaf servant, to an audience with the pope, who tells the painter that he’s prepared to overlook a bit of sodomy if he’s able to bring common people into the church. On the other, although all these statements are being made, they don’t feel that germane to the film’s plot.
There is also a lot of poetry, mainly in the voice over. And there are plenty of regional accents to show that this isn’t your poncey intellectual poetry (it is interesting to read in one, presumably US-American, review that Sean “monoaccent” Bean is talking cockney). This was the mid-1980s when Steven Berkoff was all the rage. In fact, although it would be overstating the case to say that Caravaggio would be only possible in the early days of Channel 4, it fits that mood perfectly.
The film functions primarily as a work of art, where you could quite easily hang individual stills on your wall. It is terrifically lit, in a way that belies it’s meagre budget (£450,000. apparently). It was a joy to finally see the film the cinema. We don’t just see representations of individual works of art, but the moments before and after when the models are getting ready or relaxing. Many scenes show people posing to be painted with a painting in the background (or quite often, in the foreground).
No more is Frank Zappa’s quote that writing about music (or in this case, art) is like dancing about architecture more valid. Caravaggio is something you sit back and watch, and then you enjoy it – or you don’t, both views are perfectly valid. But the moment you start to try to understand it, the moment you try to describe it, it somehow loses some of it’s lustre (as a complete aside, isn’t one of the best Elvis Costello lyrics ever “You lack lust, you’re so lacklustre”).
The Elvis Costello reference isn’t completely gratuitous. Maybe it’s just my ADHD mind, but watching the sumptuous tableaux made my mind wander into all sorts of flights of fancy (including an old sketch I wanted to write about someone needing a pair of coins to put over a dead man’s eyes so they rushed around hospital seeing if anyone could change a fiver). No this is not in the script, but we are watching such artistic beauty that such mental leaps are a valid reaction.
I’m not sure that Jarman wouldn’t approve. His film is full of anachronisms, from typewriters to the sound of trains. He justified this by saying that Caravaggio himself painted biblical figures in Renaissance dress. In other words, if you want to ask what this film is about, it is about anything you want it to be about. You are allowed to make your own free associations.
There is a danger to this approach. Jarman has said that his films are just as realistic as Ken Loach’s, and they really aren’t, not if we want to maintain “realism” as a term that has any meaning. You can well imagine some post modernists getting over-excited about a film like this because it only has a passing relationship to anything that happens in the real world. It also proudly announces that it contains way more style than substance.
Such apparent superficiality is perfectly ok in an individual film. The world is a better place for having a film like Caravaggio. It provides a sense of style that is sadly lacking in much modern cinema. And yet if the only sort of available films were like this, then most of us would spend much less time in the cinema. Caravaggio’s value lies in it being not like most other films. But this is only possible if there are other films out there for it to be not like.