Death. Dystopic. Fantastic. Profane. Sublime. And most certainly surreal.
The "Garden of Earthly Delights" is a triptych and incidentally, debatably Bosch’s most famous work. It expresses many of the above themes to fierce consequence. It is an enormous work of genius which was completed in 1500 and is now housed at the Prado in Madrid.

It is a very peculiar painting which tells three stories, the first reflecting on the days of Eden the second presumably earth as it appears now (or back in 1500), and then lastly it depicts rather hellish damnation. It's quite astonishing when we think that this would have of gone up in some Church, it's an act of heresy so large, you honestly cannot see why they would not have burnt the thing back then. The picture has a fascinating mystery as to what it means; you think in fact it's going to be rather erotic in the modern sense. That is probably a fraction of its appeal, people look at all these naked figures thinking there must be something terribly dirty or depraved going on, and essentially there are a lot of curious things going on, there's a man sticking flowers up somebody else's bottom for example but there's nothing prurient about it, in its context it’s a rather lovely thing.

Bosch uses the metaphor of the garden, to create study in lust. The canvas is engaged with exquisitely rendered images of frolicking, naked women, nude men straddling spectacular mutants, winged figures hauling succulent red fruit, and lots of touching, stroking, kissing, and fondling.
The painting has been described as somewhat like Fantasia, or more accurately, Disney on acid!

Upon closer examination, Hieronymus Bosch's riotous images and colours expose themselves not as what we would imagine to be haphazard and chance but instead as precise, carefully selected symbols, meting out sobering parables and whips. An example of this precision is found in the left section of "Garden of Earthly Delights". It features an enormous glass bubble containing a pair of lovers. The motif of the glass sphere was associated both with the implements of the alchemist and with an ancient Flemish proverb that says: "Happiness is like a glass, which soon breaks."

The illogical use of space in the triptych comes to light as an expression of pure, undiluted dreams and fantasies. This lack of proportion in Bosch's panels has led critics to suggest that he trained as a book illustrator rather than a painter, and this background gave him the freedom to express movement and invention through his curious array of grotesque, gargantuan animals and madcap human figures.

If I can give you one last, defining word, for the Garden of Earthly Delights, it is:


Release: 2004-03-12 (Poland), 2006-06-26 (USA)
Director: Lech Majewski
Length: 103'
Production: Poland, Italy, UK
Language: English
MPAA rating: Not rated but you wouldn't want to watch it with your teenager. Your teenager, on the other hand, might want to watch it solo.

Cast: Claudine Spiteri, Chris Nightingale

Home video gone to the Bosch

Produced on a budget that most film productions would spend on the crew's coffee, The Garden of Earthly Delights is a shrewdly amateurish-looking film about, what else, sex and death. Set in Venice it describes several days at the end of life for Claudine, an art scholar in her thirties who is dying of throat cancer, as she arrives in the city to deliver a series of lectures on Bosch's famous triptych from which the film takes its name.

Despite the use of a single handheld Sony PD100 miniDV camera and natural spaces for all recordings, this is not The Blair Witch Project. This is a project of some ambition and skill. Although the actors have day jobs—Nightingale is a cameraman with a few bit part credits to his name and Spiteri makes a living as some sort of art producer—Majewski is in charge and is no amateur. The actors understand that it could be them for real and even keep their own first names. The whole film is well scripted and plays out like a passion play as the scenes from the painting are enacted in the flesh like a well-worn litany. And by "in the flesh" I do mean in the flesh. The amount of skin on display in this film certainly consigns everyone involved, audience included, to Bosch's special place for the lustful. Or that special place Pee Wee Herman goes when he gets collared in a movie theatre.

Appearances notwithstanding, Garden is not just an artsy, underproduced film thick on skin and short on substance. I'd say it is more of a raw, honest look not as much at death as an anticipated event as much as as a process for all involved. There is no paradox in Claudine living it up while Chris is already mourning. Each of them proceeds on the path in his or her own way. It's a very alive film in many ways and so finds a remarkable setting in a city that's as vibrantly moribund as the protagonist. And right about now I'm close to overdescribing it.

Should you watch it?

I'd say yes. It's idiosyncratic but not off-putting in its approach to a rather common theme. It's very well constructed within the limitations of the medium. There is nothing pretentious or unnatural about the sex, the dying, or even the analysis of Bosch's work, which is quite normative. In the end it is all about the fact that we're made of dirt and are so many percent calcium and so many percent carbon, just like the paint on Bosch's panels. Watch it.

Film critic style rating: * * * + (3.5/5)

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