34 // 12.07.2023

Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp)
Peter Strickland

Unrated, 18+
This work involves nudity and sexual content.

mundane endings, unchecked fantasies, boys in the sand, mythic males, baubles of obsession, the gap between imagination and enactment, Tuxedomoon, desire and loss in tandem, Andy Warhol’s NYC.

Today, from our commissioning program, we return from our hiatus to bring you a sex film for the tender-hearted, and a reminiscence in lost love and loneliness.

UK writer-director Peter Strickland is known for his stylish, cinephilic excursions into genre and horror. Now Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp) offers a nostalgic, retro nod to 1970s pornos, full of counterpoints held in beautiful balance — audio of a fond lover’s lament of a relationship past, with vision of a heady 16mm film. The visual language is that of sex but the theme is romance dashed. In this way, Strickland’s erotic requiem flickers between modes of mourning and ecstasy.

In Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp), an elderly director narrates a DVD commentary for a home movie he made fifty years earlier with a boyfriend, a missive from what he calls “my little private worlds,” restored from film canisters left under his bed for decades. The beautiful young man on screen, Wade (Sebastian Kapps, a trained dancer), plays the role of a sexy explorer in a fantastical forest. As he gets lost in a Narcissus moment in an iridescent pond, we hear the director tell the story of his romantic decline with his on screen muse. The colour-saturated, maximalist, kitsch design creates a hermetically sealed universe: two lovers, one little room.

As with the unchained hauntings of In Fabric (2018), Strickland uses genre conventions as the highly aestheticised scaffolding for a personal work of art – rich, Haynes-esque worlds that also reference cinemas past. Some filmmakers deal with landscapes, some with other peoples’ stories, but here, the substance is inner realms – haptic little tableaux of psychological space. The film is as customarily funny as the rest of Strickland’s body of work, riffing playfully on familiar tropes (brazenly fake dildos, sexual opportunities of happenstance, self-aware money shots) and playfully bracketed with DVD title cards and production company logos. It’s also an unlikely pandemic film, made in April 2022 when the world felt low on breathable oxygen and life happened in the cracks of QR codes, online shopping carts and unwalked footpaths, even as it harks back to an epoch when audiences had to leave their homes to watch porn.

The offscreen film director Troy is performed by Michael Brandon (from Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet), whose aged, mellifluous voice conjures a sense of resigned intoxication. Instead of a memory he has a film from another era that portals him to his past heartbreak, an unusual type of cruelty. Crucially, the narrative and filmic perspective is gloriously one-sided to the point of myopia — that of the voyeur, the one who was left, the one who felt more and adored more – by an aging character taking a wistful look in the rear-view-mirror. This is an interesting treatment, I think, of the porn genre. Rather than functioning as an empty, anonymous projection of desire, it’s an emotional vehicle for squandered possibility. Erotica, reimagined, as a liberated space for humane and artistic exploration – fresh terrain for cinematic innovation.

Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp) also nods in its structure to a masterwork of dialogue-free montage and underground cinema, Pink Narcissus (1971), first screened anonymously before James Bidgood claimed it as his own. The film, which could be the origin of the now-ubiquitous bisexual lighting trend, is influenced by MGM musicals and life in pre-gentrified NYC (“The skyline is like the echocardiogram of the city of New York,” said Bidgood, once. “The heart’s going up and down in a jagged line.”)

Visually, we see a carefree paradise evocative of the leafy, light-dappled environment of Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand (1971, with a director’s commentary here). And yet the images betray the sounds in the disjunctive manner of Marguerite Duras’ Les Mains Négatives (1979), which is also about aloneness. Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp) is wholly unironic in tone but for this productively discordant messaging. Here’s a typical moment: Wade is unbuttoning his shirt when our narrator says, “now I’m just reminded of something that went so wrong after a blissful year of living together. I’m reminded of how cold he became during our final months.” Passion gives way to indifference.

The story ends on an image of absence: artificial mist floating in the plastic forest just evacuated by Wade. I suppose most great art helps us feel closer to people, even when they’ve left.

Explore the world of Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp) on our platform with our insightful director interviewbehind-the-scenes stills and production materialsin-the-mood playlists from the world of the swamp and an essay by Executive Producer John Edmond.

About Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland is the writer-director of feature films Flux Gourmet (2022), In Fabric (2018), The Duke of Burgundy (2014), Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Katalin Varga (2009).