Tristan & Iseult

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Michael J. Murphy was nineteen years old the first time he adapted the twelfth century chivalric romance Tristan and Iseult. Murphy’s first Tristan & Iseult (1970) only exists in a fractured version with long sequences missing and others taken from camcorder transfers done in the eighties by Murphy himself. Since Tristan & Iseult is essentially a lost film one can only assess what remains.

The remaining footage of Murphy’s micro-budget production is gorgeous; suggesting a style that would come to full fruition over the course of the next decade. Expressionistic angles and painterly compositions abound in Murphy’s Tristan & Iseult. There’s a stilted quality to the performances and blocking that suggests rigorously suggests the pageantry of medieval courts. Tristan & Iseult is akin to a low budget Ivan The Terrible Part II (1957) in its style.

Curiously the scenes that no longer exist of Tristan & Iseult are those of action and violence. What remains are poetic sequences of forbidden lovers lost in their passions out in nature that are bookended by intertitles that provide necessary exposition. This sets Tristan & Iseult up not as a straight forward adaptation, but a prolonged meditation on the nature of medieval romance. The surviving version of Tristan & Iseult is a mood piece set to the music of Tchaikovsky.

The camcorder footage juxtaposes these beautiful 16mm tableaus of medieval chivalry not just visually, but musically. The digital image comes with cheap electronic music that shatters the carefully constructed atmosphere of the 16mm footage. The addition of the digital images may complete the narrative intention of Murphy’s film but it sabotages the intent of the film in the process. Fortunately the bulk of what survives of Murphy’s film is the 16mm material.

Like Happy Ever After (1974), Tristan & Iseult is a film of pure cinematic instinct that uncovers a kind of cinematographic poetry in its simplicity. Murphy’s works from the seventies are films rooted in natural spaces the convey more with the physical gestures of actors and the camera than with dialogue. Trsitan & Iseult, even in its incomplete form, is pure cinematic art. Murphy’s career stands defiantly as a reminder that it doesn’t cost a fortune to make cinematic art.