Derek Jarman’s Renaissance and The Devils (1971)

  • Author(s): Rowland Wymer
  • When: 2014-10
  • Where: Shakespeare Bulletin
  • The invitation in 1970 to design the sets for Ken Russell’s film The Devils (1971) changed Derek Jarman’s life, diverting him from painting towards film making. Russell’s film proved very influential on Jarman’s own work (for instance, the censored “rape of Christ” sequence was recreated in Jubilee [1978]). The film also captured some of the contradictions of Jarman’s attitudes towards “the Renaissance.” Sometimes he seems to think that the value and importance of the Renaissance lay primarily in its revival and conservation of classical forms but elsewhere in his films and writings, he can be extremely negative about the Renaissance in its guise as the “early modern.” In the film, the death of the priest Urbain Grandier is preceded by the destruction of the statuary, paintings, and books within his study. This “annihilation of the Renaissance” takes place as part of a determined attempt by Cardinal Richelieu to centralize all power in the monarchy, a characteristically early modern development. To complicate things further, the means used to crush the semi-independent city of Loudun involve the manipulation of a convent of “possessed” nuns, foregrounding the kind of pre-modern, “medieval” irrationalism which Jarman was fascinated by. In other words, one (classical) version of the Renaissance is destroyed by an unholy alliance of some of the “pre-modern” and “early modern” characteristics of the early seventeenth century (characteristics which had been foregrounded by Aldous Huxley in the film’s source text). The essay attempts to establish the full extent of Jarman’s creative contribution to Russell’s film and to explore the tensions between different conceptualisations of the Renaissance which are apparent within it and which are manifested later in Jarman’s own films.

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