• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, March 06, 2020

    The Garden (1990)

    Derek Jarman's The Garden turns thirty this year and as it got a Blu-ray release last year and screened on Film4 the other night I have finally got around to writing a few comments on it. It had been over a decade since I last saw it.

    Jarman was an important and influential figure in the British film scene. While he died of AIDS in 1994, having done so much to raise the profile of the disease and those who suffered from it, his influence has continued. Last year Mark Jenkin, the director of 2019's underdog Bait, did a profile of Jarman for Radio 4's "The Film Programme" discussing the influence Jarman had on him and it's a style I saw copied in numerous places in the 1990s and 2000s.

    The first time I heard about this film was in a SCM publication called "No More Mr Nice Guy: a New Look at Jesus" in a list of "Jesus in films". Given it was published only four years after the release of The Garden, SCM's pioneering inclusivity and it's inclusion of a guide to leading a discussion about Jesus' sexuality it's perhaps not a surprise that it was one of the thirteen films discussed. However, even when I first read it back in 2001, it seemed somewhat out of place amongst 12 of the most discussed Jesus films.

    It's difference is partly because of its style. Even the musicals, Life of Brian and Jesus de Montreal are all essentially narrative based cinema produced in the classic Hollywood style. The Garden is not. It's more avant garde / surrealist / non-linear. It's disjointed, trance-like, feel mixes iconographies of Christianity and 80s/90s gay subculture. In some ways the film that is nearest to it is James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber's Lot in Sodom (1933). It would be as much at home in an art gallery as in a cinema. Scenes of Jarman sleeping only emphasise the sense of a fervid dream.

    But it's also different because for all it's extensive use of passages from the Bible and Christian imagery, it's not so much a film about Jesus as Jarman's attempt at a frank and profoundly honest attempt at what it feels to be him, his thought processes, worries and fears. David Thomson describes Jarman as "like a prisoner whose ...films may also need an audience of inmates" and certainly there's a sense "frustration, desperation and "confinement" that runs throughout the film (Thomson, 439).

    Some will be horrified by the mixture of biblical and gay imagery here, but the sheer volume of the former means this is clearly a serious engagement with the material. Indeed given the toxic attitudes around homosexuality in Britain in the 1990s it is an incredibly brave film - it is a genuine reflection on two huge elements of Jarman's psyche blended in with past memories.

    The biblical imagery starts with the title. On one level "The Garden" refers to the patch of land surrounding Jarman's Prospect Cottage near the beach at Dungeness, Scotland, but it also evokes the biblical gardens, Eden, Gethsemane and Paradise (the etymology of the word goes back to gardens). These themes pop up throughout as the gay couple, who appear regularly during the film, are frequently seen with a baby, being persecuted, but also possessing, at times, a sense of hope.

    But the biblical imagery percolates throughout the film's 86 minute run time. There's the use of the nativity story - narrated from Matthew's Gospel at one point as a man in first century dress sits writing in a book in his lap. This is intercut with a group of cardinals dragging a huge boulder of gold along the beach. Following a stunning montage of blurry fairground lights two men on a beach uncover a crown on the beach which soon appears on top of Tilda Swinton's head. Swinton, who is impossibly young and beautiful here, is cast in various different sections of footage, but is shown as a Madonna figure in several shots.

    Elsewhere there are shots of classic paintings (including Piero della Francesca's "Resurrection"); a resurrected Jesus figure displaying his wounds; small fishing boats; pages from the Bible flashing large in the background; various scenes evoking the last supper and the breaking of bread; and a leather-clad Judas dangling from a rope while his grotesquely blackened fake tongue hanging down to his sternum.

    While The Garden contains very little conventional dialogue - in some ways it could almost be considered a silent film - there is a similarly varied and unpredictable soundtrack which includes snippets of monks singing, mocking laughter and synth sounds. At one point three men dressed as Father Christmas menacingly circle the couple in bed singing a very aggressive version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".

    Perhaps the film's central use of biblical imagery surrounds the persecution of the gay couple. For much of the film, Jarman's framing and unsteady camera create a sense of danger around them. But then they appear in front of what looks like Roman officials at the public baths, before finding themselves sitting bound and gagged surrounded by security guards. One guard sticks tar/treacle around their foreheads - evoking the blood from the crown of thorns - and then sticks feathers to it leaving both men humiliated and dripping with what looks like droplets of blood. Moments later the two appear trussed up, their backs being whipped until their shirts are red with blood. It's the Santas once again. Finally we see the two of them, eyes closed, carrying a cross along the beach. A man in a dress - who was previously seen trying to escape from a stone-throwing mob - kneels and kisses the feet of one of them.

    Jarman's best known adaptation is his version of The Tempest  (1979). Whilst it was considered shocking in its time, it's far more conventional take compared to Jarman's use and reworking of the material here to express both his rage at, and fear of, homophobic oppression and violence. Mark Cousins considers Jarman's pastiches of classical paintings and homosexuality mark him out as one of the inheritors of Pasolini's controversial cinematic legacy (285). Pasolini's own reworking of the Gospel of Matthew, makes for an easy comparison, but it's as much Pasolini's use of the Bible in his other early sixties works, as well as some of his more controversial later works, that seem to have had a bigger influence on The Garden. Like Pasolini, Jarman died young , but left a legacy of artists who were inspired and profoundly changed by him. Whilst The Garden is perhaps not his most important work it's certainly one of cinemas boldest uses of the Bible.

    - Cousins, Mark ([2004] 2011) The Story of Film, London: Pavilion. Revised hardback edition.
    - Thomson, David ([1975] 2002) The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London (Little Brown), Fourth Edition.


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