‘Breake off this last lamenting kisse, which sucks two soules and vapors both away.’ Inspired by John Donne’s poem, The Expiration is a beautiful, evocative, depiction of two secret lovers as they accept they must reluctantly part forever. This adaptation embraces the Renaissance concept of la petite mort that ‘to die’ was ‘to orgasm’ and explores the bittersweet moments of a love’s last breath.
That’s the description on the exemplary website for this new film by British director Lotus Hannon, released on the web today in honor of John Donne’s birthday. He’d be 544, which seems incredible to me because in so many ways his work seems so modern. As the greatest of the metaphysical poets, he’s been an indispensable touchstone for metaphor-obsessed 20th and 21st century poets in a way that most of his contemporaries have not. Oddly, however, I haven’t run across very many film or video adaptations of his works online, so let’s hope this one will inspire other poetry filmmakers to try their hand at a John Donne poem.
The Expiration was filmed by BAFTA Breakthrough Brit 2015 Cinematographer Anna Valdez Hanks and has so far been selected for the BFI LOVE season as part of the Cornwall Film Festival and for the StAnza International Poetry Festival in March. The actors are Azzurra Caccetta and Olivier Hubband.
In her director’s statement on the website, Hannon goes into some detail about how she came to make the film and why she chose the shots and setting that she did:
I was introduced to the love poetry of John Donne at high school and suddenly my literature class became a lot more interesting…suddenly his words made ‘one little room an everywhere’. I was able to channel my awakening teenage sexuality into becoming a metaphor sleuth, eagerly stripping away the layers of his work to discover hidden meanings. I found his observations of lovers and loving so beautiful, and The Good Morrow became one of my favourite poems.
John Donne’s honest exploration of life, love, sex, death – la petite mort, fascinates me. When I recently read The Expiration, I was captivated. There is nothing more charged than a ‘…last lamenting kisse,..’ nothing more precious than a love, ‘…which sucks two soules, and vapors both away.’ It was the sobering line “Turn thou ghost that one, and let me turn this,” that instantly brought an image of a couple that can no longer love one another, awkwardly lying close, sharing a bed, knowing they can no longer be connected. An overhead wide shot of a couple turning away from each other, lying back to back became imprinted in my mind,..from this, my ambition to bring it to the screen grew…
Originally I thought we’d shoot in an enclosed environment, inside a bedroom or a beach hut but as my vision for the piece developed, the poem’s earthiness, its grittiness demanded it be located outside. The title and the poem itself made me think of ‘lifeforce,’ or ‘chi’, which literally means breath, air, or gas. And as trees give us the oxygen that we cannot live without, I wanted to set it in the woods.
I wanted to capture the metamorphosis of a couple’s intoxicating sexual euphoria into a clear-headed, post-coital reality: Despite their passionate love, their relationship just cannot be. For me, The Expiration is not about a love that has just fizzled out. There is too much full-blooded passion, anger and too much raw pain. The act of passion creates life itself, and yet this is a love that has to be killed off. This led me to interpret the poem in the way I have. I hope to evoke the emotional effect this poem has on me, and to honour the wonder of loving and the bittersweet joy and pain it can bring.
Be sure to visit the Behind the Scenes page for the full credits list, complete with web links, and a series of snapshots of the filming. The website also includes a good biography of Donne as well as the text of the poem.
Here’s a film by John Le Brocq called One Night Stand – Perfect End, in which the John Donne poem serves as a (mostly) internal monologue for the protagonist.
by John Donne
NOW thou hast loved me one whole day,
To-morrow when thou leavest, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons which we were?
Or that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true deaths true marriages untie,
So lovers’ contracts, images of those,
Bind but till sleep, death’s image, them unloose?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purposed change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could
Dispute, and conquer, if I would;
Which I abstain to do,
For by to-morrow I may think so too.