Scorning cinema as being mere 'illustrated text', Greenaway brings artistic values, intellectual esoterica, visual richness, pedantic obsessiveness
and a documentary approach to movies, attempting to take cinema to the next visual level with every experiment. The results are intellectually stimulating,
obscure, pretentious, bizarre and beautiful visual feasts with themes, metaphors, clues, cerebral puzzles, symmetries, lists, numbers, puns, obsessions and
nudity galore. His movies are usually layered, self-referential, and revolve around abstract or artistic themes, or obsessive details and ideas, and, therefore,
although some of his movies employ a narrative, full enjoyment cannot be derived from them if absorbed only as stories.
With his movies, he is compelled to explore abstract and artistic themes comprehensively, dissecting all of their facets and extremes in detached but visually
explorative ways. For example, the film 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover' explored vocal song, oral sex, cannibalism and scatology seemingly because
they are all related to matters of taste linked to the same body organ, and not because he is out to shock per se. Although, perhaps he views the jolting of his
audience as a desirable effect in order to have us go beyond taboos and to intellectually absorb the themes being explored. Another of his passions is exploring
new ways to deconstruct a narrative and tell a story, or educate on artistic history, using layered multimedia to obsessively explore the details of an event, fact
or scene. Even his lesser movies have striking visuals, beautiful painting-like cinematography, and intriguing, precise and pedantic eccentricities.
Not included here is his relatively ordinary drama 'Belly of an Architect' in which both the movie and its protagonist are obsessed with bellies as they pertain to art,
the pedantic speculative back-story and analysis of a painting in 'Nightwatching', an artistic exploration of Eisenstein's adventure with gay sex and death in Mexico
in 'Eisenstein in Guanajuato', and numerous shorts and artistic documentaries, most of which are esoteric, very obsessive works sometimes featuring extremely dry and
impenetrable intellectual humor. A fascinating and unique auteur.
Greenaway's most popular movie with an accessible plot about a crude, loud thief, a restaurant he terrorizes, and his
cheating wife. But digging into the movie behind its notorious shock values comes up with a fascinating theme: Food, sex,
good and bad taste, body orifices and body functions and how pleasures and disgust derived from them are so closely connected.
Even speech, silence and singing are explored, demonstrating how the mouth can be crude, loud, gentle or restrained. Gourmet
food, rotten food, sex, toilet habits, oral sex, scatology, vomit, cannibalism and other extremes are explored to comprehensively
cover all aspects of this theme. The cinematography is nothing short of stunning with an amazing use of color schemes and composition,
and fine tastes are mixed with disgusting visuals, making this one very hard to watch, but intellectually and visually rewarding.
Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, The
A brilliant exploration of the theme of art and reality, the relationship between the artist and his subject matter,
and the subjectivity of truth. The actual story is about an arrogant draughtsman hired by a Renaissance lady to
draw her house in return for sexual favors. The rich folk play their games with him and the plot keeps thickening.
Variations on the theme include living statues, ambiguous clues that mean different things for different people,
and all kinds of subject matter that refuses to stay objective and static. Self-referential with a vengeance and
Draughtman's Contract, The
A cerebral joy of a puzzle about games and life and the blending of the two. Trigenerational women drown their
three husbands and get the coroner to cover up for them. The coroner loves weird games, his son is obsessed with
playing them and counting everything in sight (mostly dead things), everything has rules, and the son has a
crush for a girl who skips rope and counts stars. Everything gets interconnected, life, death and its rules
turn into games and counting exercises, and vice versa. The movie itself is a game - see if you can spot all
the clues and numbers.
Drowning by Numbers
The themes here are birth, the symmetry of life, death, and the anti-symmetry of decay. The story is about two
brothers that lose their wives and become obsessed over these ideas while developing a strange relationship with the
woman who drove their wives to their deaths and thereby lost a leg. Siamese twins, symmetrical amputees, black
and white animals both dead and alive, bestiality, sex, birth, death, evolution, rot and Vermeer paintings are
explored. A lot of decay in all its reeking, wormy glory is shown. A very memorable, strange, intellectual and
elegantly humorous visual essay.
Zed & Two Noughts
The central theme revolves around fantasy vs. reality. Religion is the main target here, portraying the belief in miracles, and a
child icon being used for advertising, religion, power, money, and other not so idealistic purposes. Fantasy and ideals are forced
onto reality, twisting it into blind depravity. This is also explored using a play within a play, acted out for a childish, rich
Renaissance man in his home amidst extravagant sets, while the eclectic audience heckle and interact with the actors. Fantasy and
real-life bleed from the set to the back-stage and to the audience (and vice-versa) while actors are abused and the audience participates
in decadence and very twisted religiosity. Thus, the audience projects its religious dementia and affect the development of the play, and
the twisted elements of the play instigate perversity amongst the audience. Features a notorious, extremely disturbing rape scene (that
bleeds from the play to real life) which shocks you for hours afterwards even though it doesn't show the details. That and some child
dismemberment helped it get quickly banned in the US. Amazing photography, overwhelming details, complex long tracking shots, and visually
breathtaking, but a very slow story with too much emphasis on attacking dark, sleazy and depressing religion, and, overall, it just feels
too pre-occupied with disturbing behaviour.
Baby of Macon, The
Amongst Greenaway's earlier, short, pedantic, repetitive and obsessive faux-documentaries, this one stands out in its subject matter. It is also
relatively longer, clocking at 45 minutes, and is reminiscent of The Falls. It explores 23 bodies pulled out of the Seine between the period of 1795
and 1801, a period of the 'revolutionary calendar' which no longer exists, evoking thoughts on death, or on lost and remembered lives for the film's
conclusion. Each body is speculated upon by the narrator using meticulous studies of their mortuary notes, clothes and other clues found on their
bodies, whether they died of an accident or nefarious motives, and a commentary on what their lives must have been like based on their attire and
what was known about them at the time. The camera then slowly pans over their nude dead bodies while the mortuary notes are super-imposed on the screen,
for a multimedia exploration of death, and glimpses of fragments of life through small details.
Death In The Seine
Sexual fantasy and female archetypes, Peter Greenaway style. A rich man's wife dies and is inconsolable. His son suggests
sexual exploration. Lots of taboos are broken (incest, bestiality), amusing, almost surreal dialog is spoken, various forms
of sex and sexual functions are explored in analytical ways, and 8 1/2 exotic sensual female characters form their harem
until everything falls apart. Light-hearted and amusing, but nothing as brilliant, dense and cohesive as his other features.
8 1/2 Women
The ultimate Greenaway 'documentary' which alludes to elements in previous shorts as well as future full-length films
and involves everything that is pure Greenaway: Dry puns, endless facts and figures, obscure intellectual clues,
extremely abstract subject matter, etc. Clocking at 3 hours, this extremely challenging feature explores 92 out of
19 million people whose names begin with 'Falls..' and who were affected by a 'Violent Unknown Event'. These people
attempt to describe the event and its consequences and are explored biographically so that pieces and clues slowly
fall into place. Extremely challenging and boring, but fascinating as an exercise in ultimately abstract film-making.
When Greenaway sets out to explore profanity, blasphemy and taboo in connection with erotica and religion as his theme, naturally one would assume that
the result will be quite uncompromising. Of course, he does not do this gratuitously, but as part of an educational biography of the Dutch erotic
artist Goltzius who was commissioned to make erotic versions of the Bible and perform provocative depictions of biblical debauchery in blasphemous
and titillating theatrical interpretations. Given this crude subject matter, only Greenaway could have explored it with such detachment and manage to
combine crude provocation with refined taste while educating us on the history of erotic art. Adam and Eve, Lot and his daughters, David and Bat-Sheba,
Potiphar's wife, Delilah, and Salome, all reduced to theatrical pornography with a painter's eye for settings and costumes, so that it's hard to tell
where the cheap titillation ends and the art begins. These plays are acted in a strikingly decorated Brechtian warehouse for a strange, pseudo-libertarian
Margrave who adopted a custom to take a scheduled dump publically in a library. The performance is also for his aides, a harem of black-faced slaves, and
a group of clerics and rabbis who stupidly criticize the plays for technical inaccuracies, and take the players to court and punishment. In between the
performances, various affairs and dramas escalate into sex, violence, castration and sodomy, sometimes paralleling or leaking into the plays themselves.
All of this is highly reminiscent of Baby of Macon, but the look is more like Prospero's books, employing a narration and various multimedia about historical
erotic art, as well as humor which that movie sorely lacked. Whether you like it or not depends on your attitude to the subject matter, the thick accents
sometimes make it difficult to understand, and obviously this won't be shown in some locations, but it's undeniably a rich experience.
Goltzius and the Pelican Company
A visual feast of tactile pleasures exploring a Japanese lady and her obsession with calligraphy. The beauty and eroticism
of nudity and writing blend in various ways and provide a somewhat erotic, striking visual experience. Skin is
explored as paper, messages are sent using various body shapes, and words are exquisitely painted on specific body parts
in creative patterns in order to convey ideas. In addition, an ancient Pillow Book compiles lists of various refined experiences,
including pleasurable, memorable, or irritating ones. Thus, this explores themes of art as pleasure, the personal search for
things that bring us pleasure, the human body, communication, and the conveyance of information via personal artistic expression.
The story of her father, her bisexual lover and her vengeance against a publisher is secondary.
Pillow Book, The
One of Greenaway's most challenging and esoteric multimedia-documentary-style creations that discards narrative
for a more multi-faceted experience. Nudity, scenes from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest', nudity, lots of bizarre surreal
imagery, Prospero's magic and power is depicted throughout the movie as nude human forms, more nudity, his favorite
books with lush details of their contents are listed, amazing visual feasts and gorgeous photography, and finally, more
nudity. Did I mention that this movie contains a lot of nudity? Basically, this is physical and avant-garde performance-art
combined with overwhelming visual multimedia in order to explore some esoteric details in a Shakespeare play.
In some ways, this is the culmination of Greenaway's art, career and ideas so far. The biography of the fictional Tulse Luper is explored via a massive multi-media
project involving 3 feature films, a condensed feature film, an IMAX experience, some interactive multimedia websites with images, flash movies, documents, and
blogs, DVD extras, books, CD-ROMs, and the (so far) missing TV series and 92 DVDs. The story is also called a personal history of Uranium (number 92), Tulse's
story told via multiple 'prisons' he finds himself in, 92 suitcases filled with different objects, 92 characters, and 92 objects that represent the world. Each episode
is a mini-story in different parts of the world and in different periods of time with the usual Greenaway dry humor, extremes, visual richness, and strange
characters. It also has elements of auto-biography and numerous references to Greenaway's other works. The features feel like The Falls by way of the visual
documentary-style of Prospero's Books and Pillow Book, but this is Greenaway's most ambitious work so far, attempting to take cinema to the next level. Dense
movie scenes are delivered with the help of overlapping narrators, images, pictures, extra information, repetition, multiple takes and even multiple actors
in the same role delivering the same information but with different meanings. Obviously not for everyone, and it benefits from increased involvement of
audiences who pay attention to details, but what I miss the most here is Greenaway's completeness, most of this creation wandering about from episodic story
to detail to object, lost in its own overwhelming obsessions.