Saturday, March 11, 2023

Peter Greenaway x 4: The Draughtsman's Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts, The Belly of an Architect, and Drowning by Numbers

Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker who has kind of been at the edge of my awareness for a while: I probably didn't catch his name when The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was raising eyebrows for getting into some mainstream theaters despite its NC-17 rating, but when Prospero's Books came out while I was taking my second Shakespeare class in high school, I was mildly intrigued. I'd hear about his new films in the 1990s but chances to see them in either Worcester, MA or Portland, ME were scant, and I was kind of growing into someone who liked movies and dug deeper for stuff to see but didn't necessarily stray that far from the mainstream, so as his releases became harder to see, they never really crossed my path.

Truth be told, I sort of assumed he had died or retired; when he was middle-aged and in his prime, my impression was of someone older; he was the sort of art-house filmmaker who was described in academic terms, rather than as someone getting at the guts of a character's emotions. Looking at his twenty-first century filmography, he seems to have leaned into that harder, and his more recent have had runs befitting a that sort of profile.

But as I've grown to (and past) the age where he made these first four films, I've hopefully become more open to their like, and the Brattle playing them figured like a good time to dive in - if Draughtsman's Contract didn't intrigue me, I could always bail. Amusingly, I apparently did catch two of them there almost exactly 15 years earlier, and found myself not particularly impressed but also acknowledging that I was tired and these movies demand alertness. On a second go-round, I liked both better, although they still both hit me in basically the same way.

It's interesting to see them now. I tend to scoff at the who "you couldn't make a film like that today" line, because you can make all sorts of films today, and the trick is getting them distributed, and that's the key - I don't know that there are obvious places for films this academic and eccentric and sexual to get played. Fewer movies take up more screens at the multiplexes, specialty houses are playing safer material post-pandemic, both because audiences are sparser and the supply appears to be thinner, and there's less advertising and broadly-consumed arts coverage to maybe pique someone's interest. These movies are not going to be on the front page of any streaming service but MUBI or maybe Kino Now, and you don't have MUBI unless you're already all-in on this sort of thing. There just seem to be fewer chances to make the jump to this sort of fare if you're middlebrow but open to something odd. Which happens as you get older, one hopes.

One thing that struck me as I watched them was just how much nudity and sex there was. There's been a thing going around online about how today's kids are prudes who don't see how sex scenes are ever necessary, and I don't know how much truth there really is to it - the algorithms pick up the stuff that upsets people and amplifies it, so something that's not really a big deal gets treated like it is - but Greenaway is certainly positioning sex as a central part of his romantic and other relationships, not as a shameful urge but a natural one, and when you consider how central the character' bodies are to A Zed and Two Noughts and The Belly of an Architect, not showing them in their entirety would seem to be avoiding something crucial.

I suspect that part of the issue with the prudishness comes from some of the same roots as films like Greenaway not getting distribution - there's not nearly so much mainstream-overlapping space that talks about film and art as much more than a plot-delivery device, at least as a fraction of what one will accidentally stumble upon, and it's not just the young: Folks my age aren't putting ourselves in places to expose ourselves to things like Greenaway, because we can just pull in the talk and material that we know aligns with our interests and be sated. I sometimes feel like I should be moving on from some of the genre material I love, but instead I sometimes find myself sinking deeper into it, because there's just so much accessible.

I'm glad to see that I'm better able to get my head around some of this material at 49 than I was at 34, although there are definitely points where I found myself having the same reaction that I had to Wild at Heart last year: Disbelief that this sort of material is often called boring, because it's often the opposite of that, filled with emotion and intensity that conventional narratives lack - but also often so idiosyncratic that it it loses you. Greenaway is definitely in that category for me. I'll certainly try to catch his films when they play near me more often… And I'm certainly interested in the nifty new 4K disc of Drowning By Numbers that's coming out, if only so I can find all 100.

The Draughtsman's Contract

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 February 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Greenaway x4, DCP)

I had the feeling, going into the Brattle'a short Greenaway series, that he was going to be very much my thing or something where I would lose patience after ten minutes, and, well, I did not lose patience with The Draughtsman's Contract this time around. This isn't entirely my thing, but it's a combination of wit, absurdity, and murder that I quite enjoyed.

Oh, and fine art, but I'm not nearly so strong in that area. This is, I suspect, a richer film for those who are, and who recognize the allegorical devices Mr. Neville is accused of using, implied narratives lost to those of us not familiar with the tropes and symbolism. That being tantalizingly out of each is not actually a problem, though, as the surface pleasures of Greenaway's composition and the character's draftsmanship are plenty, and really delightful costume design that says all it needs to about the characters' various forms of absurdity right first sight. I found myself delighted and intrigued by scenes where the lighting wasn't perfect - a foggy day gave the film a more painterly feel and played into the plot, while a late scene where the sun apparently drifts behind clouds and out of shadow highlights the ground shifting beneath its subjects' feet.

I must admit, for as much as I enjoyed the surreal nature of the film, it's a bit of an odd choice to set up a murder mystery that only sort of plays out, especially with the background gag of a "statue" that hands around and gets up to mischief (or may be the missing-presumed-dead Lord of the Major) who one would think would be a much a potentially dangerous witness as Anthony Higgins's title character. It's perhaps not that important - Greenaway mostly seems content to talk about the relationships between gentry, the artisans who create pedigree prestige for their money, and the women in between, all sure that they're the ones bringing something of value to these places and pushing the limits of their power until it turns into physical violence. How the puzzle is solved is not actually that important, even if it would have made the movie easier to digest.

A Zed and Two Noughts

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 February 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Greenaway x4, DCP)

I wonder if watching this a third time would allow me to recognize the exact moment that things got smothered under weird obsession to the film's detriment. There's something raw and tragic about the start, as its twin botanists flail in the wake of the sudden, violent deaths of their wives and maiming of the women's friends, but as time passes, and the distinctly different twins converge, they become dull and blandly eccentric, their obsession with decay no longer feeling connected to their wives' deaths but just a mechanism for Greenaway to indulge in gnarly time lapses and toss out an increasingly bizarre set of ideas that don't really go anywhere. Even the secondary characters, who seemed weird but human when introduced, start to feel like props.

The initial premise and Greenaway's off-kilter ideas on where to go with it are more than enough to carry the film through, especially when he's staging scenes in the midst soaps hospital room ever that see him obsessing on symmetry in his composition around an amputee character who is, necessarily, not so, or digging into educational films about the origins of life but having folks miss the point that it's chaos by trying to find fate or order. The more abstract he gets, the less interesting the movie gets, and by the end he's lost a lot of what he started with.

This is the point when one starts to realize that he's exceptionally utilitarian where death is involved in his dark comedy. It's an easy way to kick things off or be done with them - you don't really have to worry about following any story threads past that point - but eventually it's so much a plot device that one can't really feel the loss, grief, and madness that comes as a result.

The Belly of an Architect

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 February 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Greenaway x4, 35mm)

Does Peter Greenaway take advantage of being able to point a camera in just about any direction in Rome and get a great background for a film about an architect having a breakdown? Yes, absolutely, to the point where I almost wish the architecture were more obviously central to the storytelling. There's some vague talk about how both main character Stourley Kracklite and his idol √Čtienne-Louis Boull√©e are avant-garde for their times but it often seems just a bit tossed off - although, as tends to be the case with Greenaway, he could just be integrating it more matter-of-factly than someone with my lack of expertise could notice.

Whatever the result, though, it's a terrific piece for Brian Dennehy. Dennehy was a guy who always seemed to slot in as a character who, even if they've climbed a ladder, was a flannel-wearing working-class guy to start and still has a lot of that in him, but he half-channels Orson Welles as Kracklite, intellectual arrogance pushing out his rough-hewn charm (though not completely). The film is built around his character's illness, and it rings truer than a lot of movies where the filmmakers use more makeup effects to highlight deterioration or have the actors playing to the rafters. Dennehy nails how one can get used to that sort of stomach pain until it's obviously much worse than initially, though in a way that's both casually familiar and alarming. He and Chloe Webb are similarly excellent showing this May-December coupling fraying to the point of completely dissolving over a period of months; they and Greenaway really excel at finding the distance that comes naturally from their age gap and how it will suddenly broaden under these circumstances.

It's an unusually solid, relatable core for a Greenaway film, if the other two I saw that week are indicative of his work, although as with those, it eventually feels a bit like the filmmaker is content to explore the ideas which piqued his curiosity and build parallels between them but not terribly interested in the story as a thing to come to a conclusion that everything has been driving toward, rather than a point where the sequence of events doesn't continue. For good or ill, it's anti-cathartic, refusing to assign more universal meaning to these stories of decidedly individual characters. It's dramatic, at least.

Drowning by Numbers

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2023 in the Brattle Theatre (Greenaway x4, DCP)

Here, Greenaway is playful in a way that seems designed to call attention to that playfulness first and foremost, perhaps to change one's thought process about how one watches such a thing. Even if one is not the sort who tends to really focus on movies until doing an Easter Egg hunt the second or third time through, the consecutive numbers can't help but grab your notice, and then you're scouring the screen, and maybe taking in more than you're used to. Art-house training wheels, in a way.

There is nevertheless a point when you're watching for the next number in sequence when maybe you start to wonder if you should be contemplating how willing this group is to murder. Or, at least, to drown their husbands, as they seem to consider it a lesser offense, as if the fact that these men are not exactly far from dying of their own carelessness means that it's not so bad for their frustrated wives to give them each a little push. One is inclined to sympathize with these women, after all - played by Joan Plowright, Julliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson, and all sharing the name Cissie Colpitts (sure, run worth a stages of life thing if you want to), they're a spectrum from sensible to purely sensual, wittier than their men and not betraying anyone until safely widowed they banter among themselves and with everyone else on a manner that's genial without being mannered. It's only as the people start point that the ruthlessness that enables them to act on their discontent really reveals itself, and things start to get uncomfortable.

Greenaway and his crew build the film as chaotic whimsy covered by a veneer of structure; this seaside town is full of clutter, with coroner Madgett (Bernard Hill) and son Smut (Jason Edwards) handling plentiful animal carcasses coming up with rules for games that don't really do much to impose order. The numbers imply fate, but it's an illusion.

For all that Drowning by Numbers is sexy and funny throughout, it's a grim thing, by the end. We're told there's no point in counting past 100 and there isn't, with the games empty distractions and all love ultimately tragic. Neither earthy plantings, cool symmetry, nor unhoused freedom protects one from things turning sour, even if one has had plenty of fun on the way.

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