After three relatively “mainstream” features – Sebastiane (1978), Jubilee (1978), and The Tempest (1979) – Derek Jarman had some spare time as he waited for funds to shoot his dream movie. The painter, set designer, gay activist and provocateur was planning to make Caravaggio, a non-traditional biopic of the painter, which would eventually be released in 1986. With his free time, Jarman made The Angelic Conversation (1984) with his old Super-8 Nizo camera that he had used to shoot many of his experimental shorts in the ‘70s. The film serves as both a remembrance of a summer in 1984 and a chronicle of a real love affair. More poignant now that it was at the time of its creation, Jarman would later refer to the film as “my most austere work, but also the closest to my heart.”
Jarman met archeologist Paul Reynolds at Heaven, a London gay dance club he frequented in the 80’s. Half-drunk one night, he approached Reynolds and asked him to be in The Angelic Conversation, which Jarman envisioned as a film about two men finding and losing each other. Reynolds was a fan of Sebastiane and readily agreed to participate. They then approached Phillip Williamson, a boy at the Heaven club that they both found intriguing, and he also agreed to appear in the film. With the cast assembled, they shot for two months in and around the Winspit Caves and some cliffs near Dancing Ledge. Of his two actors, Jarman wrote that he simply “filmed the love affair between them.”
Noticeable in The Angelic Conversation is Jarman experimentation with stop motion photography and he often filmed only 3 or 6 frames per second. For some scenes, he would transfer his Super 8 film to video then blow that up to 35mm after he received funds from the British Film Institute. The distinctive pallor of some images was achieved during the color correction process, where Jarman would occasionally slip in a brightly colored green gel instead of the usual white card. The result is unlike anything else you’re ever likely to see, even if a lot of the imagery references Kenneth Anger (especially), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean Cocteau, and other experimental queer cinema icons.
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“Our greatest love poetry is queer,” proclaimed Jarman. To illustrate this point he uses Shakepeare’s exhaustive and sometimes downright bitchy odes to a young man both as counterpoint to Reynolds and Williamson and as direct explications of them. The decision to have Judi Dench read fourteen Shakespeare sonnets as a soundtrack for The Angelic Conversation was made late in the creative process, but it makes all the difference in the world. Dench’s fire-and-ice vocal delivery of the sonnets is very distinctive; she never over or undersells the poetry but keeps it moving. Technically, she dares a lot of low inflections while still keeping the all-important rhythm of the verse going right to the end of each line. When we first see Williamson, he is staring out a large window while a clock ticks in the background. “Being your slave, what should I do but tend/ upon the hours and times of your desire?” asks Dench, in just the right tones of tender but seething outrage. Like a sad slave, she says: “where you are how happy you make those” – perhaps one of the most romantic thoughts in all of Shakespeare.
Jarman uses visual tropes of victimization, suffocation and burden in the first half-hour of The Angelic Conversation so that his two leading men are often hidden in caves and caught up in rituals they don’t seem to understand. As their torment plays out, Dench guides us through some of the darker sonnets about self-deception and deceit, underscored at points by industrial-style, ‘80s electronic music by the experimental band Coil. Jarman finally releases us from the hellish confinement of the caves and all his tableaus of crucifixion and despair, showing Williamson bathing in stop-motion in a series of ecstatically sexy visual fragments set to Benjamin Britten’s “Sea Interludes,” from his opera Peter Grimes. This classical music, blended with the sound of seagulls, joins the sensual twisting and turning of Williamson’s body. Jarman then induces a kind of trance-like state – a respite for all the suffering we witnessed in the early scenes. Under these images, maybe the most lyrically romantic of Jarman’s embattled career, Dench reads, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” the sonnet that ends, “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
We lost Jarman too soon; he died from AIDS-related illness in 1994. Jarman made most of his films with the shadow of death hanging over him, and many of them are incandescent with his anger. The Angelic Conversation is his most hopeful and gentlest film, a film made in a reflective mode that he might have moved further into if he hadn’t had cause to be so angry. Toward the end of the film, Jarman makes sure to linger over Reynolds and Williamson as they wrestle and kiss in full light, unapologetically; these two boys will eventually lose each other. What’s left for us on screen is a slightly flickering remembrance of a love that seems about to be extinguished.
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Dan Callahan is a film writer based in New York. He’s the former Arts Editor of Show Business Weekly and Book Editor at Culturedose.net. He has written for Slant Magazine, Time Out New York and Senses of Cinema.