To properly acquaint oneself with the work of English auteur Peter Greenaway is to become a student of the neo-baroque, postmodernism, art history, and religious allegory. Trained as a painter, Greenaway’s passion for the films of Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Pasolini, and Resnais led him to begin a career in experimental film in the early 1960’s. His first film, The Death of Sentiment (1965) was a pastiche of several elements that he would later explore throughout his oeuvre: architecture, religion, death and words as images.
Few filmmakers have spoken as extensively on their work or submitted to so much academic analysis as Greenaway; throughout his discussions of his own work runs a thread of dissatisfaction with cinema. People today, Greenaway opines, suffer from visual illiteracy.
To paraphrase his many lectures, interviews and discussions: we live in a text-based world, an “age of the screen” in which cinema is the illustration of text rather than a method of autonomous creation. To best understand Greenaway’s films (and especially the “essential” ones that follow), we first have to understand his position as a skeptic of the boundaries of cinema and his disenchantment and subsequent aberration with the conventions of the medium.
10. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
Greenaway’s first feature film is set, appropriately, in his century of choice: the mid-late 17th century, leading up to the Age of Enlightenment — a period dominated by Baroque and Neo-Classical art (two of the filmmaker’s strongest influences). The Draughtsman’s Contract is set at the fictional Anstey Manor where the lady of the house, Mrs. Virginia Herbert (Janet Suzman), has enlisted a cocky young artist, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins), to produce a series of drawings of the estate for her absent husband. Neville agrees to do so on the condition that Mrs. Herbert supplement his salary with sexual favors.
When Mr. Herbert turns up dead, clues as to the identity of the murderer begin to surface in the draughtsman’s drawings (clues which completely confound our Mr. Neville). Mystery, blackmail, and backstabbing ensue, leading up to a brutal conclusion. This film also marks the beginning of the partnership between Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman, whose minimalist scores make an indelible impression on the tone of his works.
The Draughtsman’s Contract is a self-reflexive and almost frustratingly enigmatic film. Greenaway’s Neville is an artist who is unable to parse meaning from his own drawings, spending more time concerned with the rules governing their creation than their actual content. The degree to which this is a critique is debatable, but there is something to be said for the fact that the drawings and the artist’s hands in the film are, in reality, Greenaway’s. Surrounded by conspirators, Mr. Neville spends much of the film reveling in his draughtsman’s frame, content in his arrogance and oblivious to his own exploitation.
9. Prospero’s Books (1991)
This adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest proves Greenaway’s fearlessness as an iconoclast of narrative. Prospero (played here by renowned Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud) is stranded by a storm on a remote island with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Miranda (Isabelle Pasco), and its strange residents and creatures.
Less a retelling of the Tempest story and more of a ballet of colors and images, Greenaway employs his now signature technique of overlays and transparencies to guide us through the film as though turning the pages of one of Prospero’s eponymous books.
Its combination of opera, dance, animation and digital manipulation made this a ground-breaking work of cinema, one that Roger Ebert said “exists outside [of] criticism.” To try to impose narrative on Prospero’s Books is to completely miss the point — it should be enjoyed as a work that eschews the tyranny of text (“text” here meaning the constraints of a typical film script) in favor of an exercise in visual and aural sensuality.
8. Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012)
Goltzius and the Pelican Company, Greenaway’s most recent film, is one of his most intense explorations of the blurred line between cinema/theater and reality, as well as one his most caustic indictments of Christianity. The Dutch engraver Hendrik Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr) and his company of actors re-enact six scenes from the Old and New Testaments for the Margrave of Alsace (F. Murray Abraham); the hope is that he might use his wealth to finance a printing press for Goltzius to produce an erotic book of Biblical illustrations.
The tableaux explore six sexual taboos: fornication, adultery, incest, prostitution, “the seduction of the young” and necrophilia — naturally causing religious and moral outrage within the Margrave’s court (the “audience”) and eventually cries for censorship, condemnation and punishment. The distinction between theater and reality shrinks and disappears as Goltzius’ attempt at seduction gives way to Greenaway’s critique of religion.
As in The Baby of Mâcon, Greenaway uses the conceit of a work of theater to deconstruct traditional cinematic notions of the frame. The “set” is a huge warehouse littered with anachronisms and drawn set pieces (columns, pillars) — the stage for a play seemingly set in both the 21st and 16th centuries. Goltzius has a lot of moving parts (forgive the pun), but its sumptuous classical allusions and unabashed excess make it a feast for the eyes even when its critique of Christianity feels a bit heavy handed.
7. Nightwatching (2007)
Nightwatching (2007) is perhaps Greenaway’s most intriguing exploration into the transportive abilities of images. Fans will already know of his borderline obsession with Rembrandt’s 1642 painting “The Night Watch” which features prominently in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and which he dedicated an entire documentary to (Rembrandt’s J’accuse). Here he explores the painting through Rembrandt’s own eyes.
Rembrandt (Martin Freeman of Sherlock fame) and his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) are a young couple deeply in love and pregnant with their first child when the painter accepts a commission from the members of the Amsterdam Civil Guard. Shortly therafter, one of the guard (Piers Hasselburg played by Andrzej Seweryn) is killed by friendly fire.
As Rembrandt learns more about the men he has been commissioned to paint, he becomes increasingly suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Hasselburg’s death. Eventually uncovering some particularly damning evidence, he uses the painting to allegorically accuse the members of the Amsterdam Civil Guard of their misdeeds.
Featuring excellent performances by the two leads (particularly from Birthistle), Nightwatching is not only witty and quite accessible — it also boasts some of the most beautiful shots we’ve seen from Greenaway so far thanks to cinematographer Reinier van Brummelen and his clear allusions to Rembrandt’s signature use of light and richness of color.
6. The Belly of An Architect (1987)
Brian Dennehy, in perhaps the best performance of his career, plays American architect Stourley Kracklite, a bombastic pedant whose struggle to construct an exhibition on obscure 18th century French architect Etienne-Louis Boullée quickly descends into obsession.
As Kracklite’s physical health declines under stress and extreme stomach pains arise, he becomes fascinated with Caesar Augustus after learning that his wife, Livia, supposedly killed him with poisoned figs. Kracklite soon becomes suspicious of his own wife, Louisa (Chloe Webb), eventually driving her into the arms of his younger rival and leaving him to contend with his pain and obsessions by writing letters to the long-dead Boullée.
The Belly of An Architect is notable as much for Dennehy’s performance as it is for Greenaway’s use of the city of Rome and its architecture as a secondary character. The strength and permanence of the city’s marble landscape, the Pantheon in particular, initially mimic Kracklite’s self-assured hyper-masculinity, but eventually turn to mock him as his mortality grows ever clearer.
There is a sense of alienation here; an abundance of stationary long shots and focus on symmetry and formalism emphasize Kracklite’s smallness and inadequacy in Rome — near the film’s conclusion Kracklite even stands directly in front of the Colossus of Constantine as he confesses his impending death.