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Blue (1993)

Director: Derek Jarman


What do you think of when you see the color blue? The sky? The sea? What does blue mean to you? The cold? The calm? Regardless of your associations and memories, Derek Jarman’s avant-garde ­film will refresh your perception of the color drastically.

A blank screen of blue, for 79 minutes, that’s all we’re looking at. But it’s not all that we see. Overlaid with narration, music, and various recorded sounds, the film blatantly goes against the show-don’t-tell rule but subtly shows more than we expect. Despite the static blueness, we “see” Jarman’s agonizing experience with AIDS through his lyrical voiceover which varies in tone and volume as the story progresses. Yet Jarman’s voice doesn’t just recount doctor visits and drug side effects – succinctly likening hospitals to tombs and describing waiting rooms as “Hell on Earth” – he renders his true life events interspersed with poignant lines of what cannot be anything but poetry.

The Gautama Buddha advises me to walk away from illness. But he wasn’t attached to a drip.

His laconic lyrics reveal the toll a disease like AIDS takes on a man who fights against more than just a physical affliction but all the demons that accompany it, inside and out. Jarman explores social issues like stigma and charity but also discusses philosophical questions triggered by the everyday life of an AIDS patient: transience, image, and reality. However, Jarman does not present us with blue haphazardly. He chooses it. Throughout the film, he personifies the color as a divine entity of bliss, power, and love. One that he trusts and believes in more than any of the medications he receives.

Blue protects white from innocence / Blue drags black with it / Blue is darkness made visible

The coupling of the blue screen, one devoid of everything except hue, and different sounds convey a wide range of emotions that ambush the audience and transform the sensory experience of watching the film to an intoxicating trance. At several points in the film, words are vocalized by an angelic choir of women – at others by a single woman, namely Tilda Swinton. For the most part, Jarman himself narrates the film as he whispers softly into our ears – and our eyes – his most sacred secrets. Embroidered with alliteration, powerful, if not overpowering, imagery and metaphors, the screenplay is delivered in an intense vocal performance that compensates for the lack of visual scenes. Nevertheless, the film still manages to be a work of art with form that reflects content not only because the color blue takes a life of its own in Jarman’s world but due to the other ideas that inhabit that same realm. A filmmaker, an artist, a human being riddled with pain and suffering, both physical and psychological – he refers directly to his closeted homosexuality in a satirical honest song – is burdened by his image; an image that limits, tortures, and alienates. Therefore, it is understandable and appropriate to strip the audience of all image and give them nothing but a naked color, the bare minimum, and guide them through stories and poetry alone, to “release” them – and himself – from its suffocating grip.

The Image is a prison of the soul. From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from Image.

Despite its relatively short duration, the film may still leave some of us jaded not only due to its lack of visual stimulation but also due to its overwhelming atmosphere of gloom. But the film is not a film. The film becomes the artist because of the highly personal experiences and thoughts Jarman shares with us. Jarman invites us to look beyond blue, to see something more, and we gladly accept. We can almost “see” his tired face, his damaged eyes, his desperate soul.

Only four months after the film’s release, Derek Jarman passed away due to AIDS-related complications and we can only hope that he no longer feels “trapped by the facts of the world.”

I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.