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- Published on Amazon.com
As with another film I reviewed once upon a time, The Garden of Earthly Delights is also for acquired tastes.
How do you render palatable the brevity, mystery, uncertainty and yes, wonder of life and its discontents? A precarious task at best and not for everyone.
I would say this: if you'd prefer an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians over reading, let's say, Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections, I'm going to guess this may not be for you. But who knows?
This film skillfully uses a handheld camera which seems forever on uneven ground, a co-star who plays the boyfriend and is suppose to be doing most of the filming but seems more a distant observer in many of the scenes than a connected lover, and the city of Venice which is not only beautiful but symbolic of fluidity, the ever-changing landscape of life.
Juxtaposed within all this is a sensually tragic art historian played by Claudine Spiteri.
(The art museum, in contrast to the fluid world of the Venice waterways, the scattering flocks of birds and the hauntingly ethereal music, the art museum like all museums is a space deliberately set aside by society to suspend time, as it were, to preserve eternity (relatively speaking) embodied in the works of artists throughout history)
This art historian has a particular interest in the iconoclastic works of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), especially his classic The Garden of Earthly Delights painted when Bosch was around forty-five year old, and she attempts to recreate some of the scenes from his paintings with her boyfriend.
Questions abound: Does she seek to connect her own fleeting existence with the themes of the painter's work which may stand for centuries, or, does she see in the paintings evidence not simply of a painter, but of an alchemist who, in transcending the material world through his creative vision, also allows for the transformation of the temporal into the immortal?
Bosch's work doesn't lend itself to easy interpretation, and rather like a dream, or the preverbal ink blots of a psychological evaluation, or this film, his paintings provide a medium within which we project our own idiosyncratic vision of life. In fact, his work often looks like a dream, or a prelude to Surrealism or Dali's hallucinatory vision.
And what of the art historian's lover? The man with the camera, frantically seeking to capture her on film, who is both intimate and overtly intrusive at times? We can't be sure if his "otherness" is due to his intuitive or eventual knowledge of their ill-fated relationship, or if this attempt to freeze life on film, to make it more real than reality as he says at one point, timeless even, is simply a reflection of his personality.
Boyfriend turns out to be an engineer who seeks to understand and work with order, the order of things, particularly as it relates to the design of boats.
Order - the discovery (or is it the creation) of meaningful structures, exists side by side with the ongoing decay of order: the entire dance of the universe, of creation and destruction and creation and destruction; Shiva's fingerprints, ad infinitum. The film excels in positioning the seeking of order along side of its inevitable collapse.
Our art historian is frightened, evidence of illness abounds, and her panic only thinly disguised in the context of play and the recreation of Boschian scenes. As her boyfriend films her she wonders how a picture can be more permanent than a body - a picture is but a trace, not a true life... right?
Like a Bosch painting, this movie is a kaleidoscope of possible meanings and rather than reducing the story to a simple both-meets-girl who is ill, the elements of the film conspire to take you into their world, rattle you, and leave you with more questions than answers.
The Garden of Eathly Delights is a complex and beautifully disturbing meditation on the eternal dialectic between life and death, love and loss, and the forever heroic attempt mortals make to add to the ongoing dance by creating something new, even if just for a moment.