“It’s a tragedy that socialism and freedom weren’t compatible.” One of the concluding lines of Derek Jarman’s bizarre 1978 film really sums up the contradictions that it seeks to present. Jarman, he of the 80 minute film Blue, which takes place all against a blue screen, brings us a science-fiction, protopunk fusion film that ultimately revels in anarchy while simultaneously feeling melancholy and foreboding.
Jubilee is clearly an influential film. It’s anachronistic combination of 16th century and 1970s England was, I’m certain, watched over and over by Sofia Coppola while she prepared Marie Antoinette (it’s a shame that Coppola didn’t attempt to at least make some kind of a commentary with her disaster-of-a-film, like Jarman does). Even films like John Carpenter’s 1981 Escape from New York seem indebted to Jubilee. But does influence make it great? Jarman displays some directorial proficiency, draws a great performance from Nell Campbell and fuses the entire cinematic experience with a rebellious energy that seems to exude from the screen. Nonetheless, the film still falls a bit short. It’s intentional heavy-handedness gets overbearing halfway through. The rendering of the violent, dystopian society and commentaries on the music industry, the role of police, Nazism, and gender roles hold weight on their own, but not for the full 100 minute span.
Queen Elizabeth time travels from the 16th century to witness an England that is ruled by no one, where music seems to be the only discernible business, where policemen’s lone role seems to be violence – either turning a blind eye to it or initiating it, and where a roving gang of punk-rock women systematically kill various men. It plays out like Marco Ferrari meets John Waters.
Everything about Jubilee is a contradiction: the gang of women kill policemen and live a hedonistic/nihilistic lifestyle, but end up in the plush confines of a record-producer’s mansion at the end; a character gets a tattoo from a blunt knife in her back…of the word “love”; Elvis is the only musician noted to be “banned”. This seems to be a society that is aimless. By presenting it in a Dickens-esque “Ghost of Britain Future” mode, Jarman seems to point to the culpability of those past – in short, the blase aristocracy of (in this particular case) the 16th century. Is it a warning, therefore? “Change your way, Queen Elizabeth, or this is the way you’re headed”? The visual presentation seems to indicate as much, but the ending, a lush green hill overlooking a gorgeous sea as Elizabeth and her court magician walk calmly away back into history points to either a lesson unlearned, or two time periods that are distinctly unrelated.
Perhaps Jarman is trying to make the point that, instead of one (16th century) being responsible for the other (1970s), that they are in fact, the same thing. This is stasis. The immovability, lack of emotional attachment and apathetic violence of a regal class is exactly the same, just in a different observable form, as an immovable, indifferent group of punks roaming England’s streets.