Beckett On Film: Breath (Damien Hirst, 2000)


Rewatched June 14, 2015


Though I almost always agree with the sentiment that the success of a film adaptation should not be predicated – especially not solely – on its fidelity to the original source, adaptations of Beckett tend to be an exception to the rule, on the basis of the nature of the auteuristic qualities of Beckett’s work being so singular that any attempt I’ve seen to distance the text from the source has always ended up feeling distinctly ersatz. (I am, however, very interested to see how the auteuristic giant of expressionist theatre Robert Wilson manages to tango on stage as actor and director of Krapp’s Last Tape in a matter of weeks! UPDATE: It was godawful. Never mind, then.) Unfortunately, Damien Hirst clearly didn’t get the memo.

Hirst’s take on Breath, in removing the opening birth-cry, in replacing the “miscellaneous rubbish” from the script with hospital detritus, complete with upended trollies breaking the “no verticals” rule, by filming the scene with OTT swooping crane shots and – most ridiculously of all – adding ashtrays with cigarettes placed deliberately in swastika patterns, takes what was Beckett’s attempt at a living, breathing vanitas painting (I strongly recommend Claire Lozier’s wonderful essay “Breath as Vanitas: Beckett’s Debt to a Baroque Genre” for more information on the subject) and turns it into a sophomoric and facile cartoon of an anti-smoking ad (which seems the most likely explanation for what is going on here), starkly reminiscent of the Vivienne Westwood parody’s clothing range in Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge.

Damien Hirst manages to remove so much of Beckett’s vision, it is almost unrecognisable from the source text, whilst those god damn swastika cigarettes are so offensively paltry, I doubt one could find a single GCSE art student who would be so void of self-awareness as to use them as a motif. The ridiculous use of the camera seems to be an attempt to emphasise the scale of this piece – trying to blow up Beckett’s fleeting yet haunting memento mori to some apocalyptic, 28 Days Later scale (Keith Allen’s trick or treat voice work does not improve matters) – only manages to remove the theatrical, whilst failing completely to add the cinematic.

The end result of Damien Hirst adapting Samuel Beckett looks like a wannabe David Firth trying and pitifully failing to adapt Sarah Kane.

By far and away, the worst part of the Beckett On Film series.
If I ever become an actor, following the Stanislavski system, and need to drawn on my experiences of murderous rage for a role, I’ll just remember what Damien Hirst did to Samuel Beckett’s Breath.

I would, personally, desperately like to see Peter Greenaway doing Breath: this play needs someone who understands how to film a Dutch painting; not this. Good God, not this.

0 stars.


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