Perhaps the most heartbreaking work of avant garde cinema ever made, there’s a kind of graceful fury boiling underneath the placid, azure surface of Derek Jarman’s Blue. Released only months before Jarman’s AIDS-related death, the film is a mix of autobiography and last testament, told entirely by sounds and voices behind a solid blue screen, a facsimile of the director’s own encroaching blindness.
My first encounter with Blue came in early 2002, less than a decade but a whole century after it was made and its maker perished. In the interim, the conversation about AIDS had finally broken through to the surface. I had spent my formative years knowing to be afraid of blood and needles. Entire high school assemblies were concocted to tell even us wholesome Midwesterners that it could happen to us too.
And so it’s bracing to be taken back to 1993 and to feel how bold and uncompromising a film Blue is, not because of the decision to make a feature length film out of nothing but a blue screen but because of how forceful and unapologetic it is in dealing with the realities of AIDS and Jarman’s complex, passionate feelings about the culture and politics around the disease and its relation to homosexuality. There’s also, perhaps counterintuitively, an argument to be made for seeing the movie on as big a screen (and in as dark a room) as possible. Even though it’s hard to imagine a film less visually dynamic, there’s a difference between looking at a blue square and being awash in its glow.
Jarman’s final statement is made through sound effects, like chiming bells and shuffling feet, and through voices, including those of longtime friends and artistic collaborators like Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton. Jarman died in 1994. Terry died in 2015. Swinton, despite her otherworldly presence, is as mortal as any human. Blue, should the fates allow, will outlive us all.