Eisenstein in Guanajuato | Peter Greenaway | UK, Netherlands | 2015
Chris Lay suggests that Eisenstein in Guanajuato is not for the queasy, or for those unfamiliar with the cinema of Peter Greenaway.
So far in the Missed Madison Film Fest, I’ve gotten off relatively easy with reviews of Bone Tomahawk and Christmas, Again which were both by first time directors. My third entry in the fest, examining Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, is a bit dicier since both its subject and director have a fair amount of baggage worth unpacking before you jump in. I’ve seen and enjoyed a few of Greenaway’s films, and I watched Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) a decade or so ago in a film studies class, so “Bring it on!” I said to myself.
Greenaway is a fascinating and unique director by whatever auteur standards you might apply. His films feel like staged plays, with backgrounds that might as well have been ripped directly from the walls of renaissance museums and actors that speak crisply and move with broad gestures as if projecting to the back of the room. There’s an overabundance of death and sex and full frontal nudity to be found in his works, and stories that are almost Shakespearean in their lustiness and tragedy. While he’s got a number of vocal champions and has clearly carved out a niche for himself in the world of film, he can be an acquired taste as exemplified by his best known film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. (Somehow it has been out of print stateside for over a decade, but you can rent it at Four Star!)
Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Greenaway’s 16th feature film (his third in the past ten years), finds the legendary director of Battleship Potemkin in Mexico in 1931 to make a movie, though there is very little movie-making that actually seems to occur on screen. Greenaway is much more content to stay holed up in the hotel with Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) and his “guide” Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti) as the latter helps the former to explore his own homosexual desires. Occasionally Eisenstein is forced to interact with his financiers, who eventually wrangle the hundred of miles of film that have been shot away from him, never to relinquish creative control back. That aspect of the very real story is woefully underdeveloped.
There are some wonderful technical inventions to be found here, from sweeping wide angle shots of gorgeous Mexican theaters, under lighting the hotel room through the glass-tiled floor, and occasionally intercutting and superimposing archival photos and documents. Despite these devices, the story itself falls flat with a dull thud. Sure, it’s pretty to look at, but it pointedly fails as anything resembling an honest depiction of its subject. While that might not be the point, if you’re gonna have the audacity to outright stretch the truth as far as it get stretched here, at least have the decency to stretch it towards something entertaining or, at the very least, illuminating.
If you’re already a fan of Greenaway’s ability to charm an audience with viscerally uncomfortable images, you’ll find some worthwhile moments here, most notably in the visual parallel that’s made between the blood from an infant that’s been injured in a mudslide and the blood resulting from Eisenstein’s loss of anal virginity. If you’re new to Greenaway, I’d suggest starting somewhere else than Eisenstein in Guanajuato, and if the sentence that preceded this one rattled you in any way, maybe Greenaway isn’t your cup of tea in the first place.