To appropriate the right visual aid for reading this review, some quick stage directions are in order. Imagine me on a darkened stage. I vacillate between older and younger versions of myself seemingly at random and my outfit changes from period appropriate dress to garish, brightly colored costumes. Occasionally, I shall be joined by a martian with a xylophone. The stage props shall be bare yet ever-changing. And you shall see me slowly shaking my head back and forth as I try to make sense of the highly experimental film, Wittgenstein, from queer cinema icon Derek Jarman which explores the life of the titular Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. If you are able to keep these images in mind as you read this review, you may perhaps have a sense of where I’m coming from although methinks that I write in vain.
Every once in a great blue moon, a truly experimental and/or art-house film comes along and reminds me how much I take most cinematic conventions for granted. Whether it’s the works of Luis Buñuel or Todd Haynes (ooh boy. Poison was a weird ass movie) or David Lynch (Eraserhead, I’m looking at you), certain directors love to give a giant middle finger to the established norms by which films are made. I was not familiar with the ouevre of Derek Jarman before this film (just his standing in queer cinema circles), but if Wittgenstein is any indication, Jarman springs from the same mold of these innovative and visually minded filmmakers. Wittgenstein is lacking in anything resembling a plot and it’s inherent assumptions that viewers are intimately aware of all aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and life can make it hard to follow, but the film establishes Jarman as an aesthetically blessed artiste if not the greatest storyteller.
For those not familiar with Ludwig Wittgenstein (and let’s face it, unless you’re a philosophically minded intellectual, you probably aren’t), Wittgenstein is arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. His work on the philosophy of science and linguistics is probably the most important thing to happen to philosophy since Immanuel Kant and Hegel (although apparently Wittgenstein hated Hegel [so do I]). And Wittgenstein is Jarman’s wryly comic look at Wittgenstein’s life. This ranges from his childhood in one of the richest families in all of Europe as a child prodigy to his adult years where he gave away his entire inheritance and became one of the most celebrated philosophers of his day. A homosexual, Wittgenstein was plagued with personal turmoil his whole life and a crippling sense of self-doubt which Jarman also explores.
I went on that whole opening rant about how to envision the review for this film because that is more or less how Jarman structures the movie. And Jarman’s visual style is without question the most interesting aspect of the film. Wittgenstein is set up like a stage play. The actors perform against stark black backgrounds in tight confines. The sets are often no more than one or two probs and the actors (except for adult Wittgenstein) tread around in bright, anachronistic costumes. In one scene, Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson) and John Maynard Keynes walk back and forth in the rain to simulate a far longer walk to maintain the theatrical illusions. The only difference between the film and a stage play is that a stage play could not handle the rapid cuts and set changes that Wittgenstein so seamlessly integrates. And although I still have absolutely no idea what the fuck the martian was about, Wittgenstein never failed to impress aesthetically.
Do not take my enjoyment of this film as an endorsement that the rest of my readers will like this movie. Although I appreciated the film’s visual style, I was still often at a loss for what was actually happening, and except for the moments that dealt with Wittgenstein’s and Keynes’ homosexuality, the film rarely made an emotional impact. It felt as cold and detached as Wittgenstein himself often was (the man likely had an undiagnosed form of Aspergers). Still, for fans of queer cinema as well as the most outre realms of art-house cinema, Wittgenstein is deserving of a watch. You may find yourself at a loss for the film’s goals or even its central tenets, but it’s fervent visual inspiration and those moments where Wittgenstein actually discusses philosophy make it an intellectually rewarding trip through art, madness, and brilliance.
Final Score: B