Lady Lazarus: Watch an Experimental Film Spoken by Sylvia Plath

Is an art, like every­thing else.
I do it excep­tion­al­ly well.

These three terse lines—with their offhand­ed­ly mor­bid bravado—may be the most remem­bered from Sylvia Plath’s body of work. The stan­za pops out of the cen­ter of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” a poem Helen Vendler once called “a tantrum of style.” Like many of the poems from Plath’s late peri­od, “Lady Lazarus” is play­ful­ly per­verse, alter­nate­ly shock­ing read­ers with grotesque imagery and invit­ing them to dis­miss the speak­er with abrupt shifts into insou­ciant melo­dra­ma. It is an unset­tling per­for­mance, not least because of Plath’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of her own sui­cide attempts with the suf­fer­ings of Holo­caust vic­tims. Plath intro­duced the poem quite mat­ter-of-fact­ly:

The speak­er is a woman who has the great and ter­ri­ble gift of being reborn. The only trou­ble is she has to die first. She is the phoenix.… She is also just a good, plain, very resource­ful woman.

Fifty-two years after the pub­li­ca­tion of Ariel—the col­lec­tion that appeared two years after her suicide—Plath’s final poems have lost none of their men­ace. And there was per­haps no one bet­ter suit­ed to imag­ine their haunt­ed psy­chic land­scapes on the screen than exper­i­men­tal fem­i­nist film­mak­er San­dra Lahire, who was com­plet­ing a doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion on Plath before her own death in 2001.

In her 1991 film Lady Lazarus, Lahire takes audio of Plath read­ing from “Cut,” “Dad­dy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Ariel,” “Oui­ja,” as well as excerpts from a 1962 inter­view. Mix­ing images of Plath’s obses­sions (oui­ja boards, hors­es, vio­lent self-harm) with pho­tographs of the poet and her work, the film delves deeply into an exis­tence that Plath her­self, in a voice-over inter­view, calls “liv­ing on air.” Lehire describes the film as

a visu­al­ly woven response to Sylvia Plath’s own read­ings of her poet­ry… which cel­e­brates her macabre humour and cin­e­mat­ic vision. A carousel of images in win­dows, an atmos­phere of con­stant meta­mor­pho­sis; her poet­ry as cin­e­ma.

Lady Lazarus is the first in a tril­o­gy of Plath films called Liv­ing on Air that Lahire shot over a peri­od of nine years. It was fol­lowed by In Night Dances in 1995 and John­ny Pan­ic in 1999.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

On 50th Anniver­sary of Sylvia Plath’s Death, Hear Her Read ‘Lady Lazarus’

Sylvia Plath Reads “Dad­dy”

Anne Sex­ton, Con­fes­sion­al Poet, Reads “Want­i­ng to Die” in Omi­nous 1966 Video

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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