10 Essential Peter Greenaway Films You Need To Watch

5. The Pillow Book (1996)

The Pillow Book (1996)

The Pillow Book is Greenaway’s only foray into Eastern culture (specifically Chinese and Japanese here). The film is the story of Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a Japanese model living and working in Hong Kong, who is obsessed with calligraphy — so much so that she derives sexual pleasure from writing on her lovers and being written on. She performs a ritual that her father introduced to her as a child, writing on bodies and chanting a prayer referencing the life-giving properties of words and images.

On her search for the perfect calligrapher, she meets Jerome (Ewan MacGregor), a young translator who quickly becomes her lover and her canvas. He becomes her first “Pillow Book”, a personal diary inspired by an ancient book of observations. After Jerome’s tragic suicide, Nagiko produces twelve more Pillow Books in a plot that culminates with her revenge against the man involved in her lover’s demise.

Upon first viewing, The Pillow Book may feel underwhelming; it lacks the zest and bawdy style of Greenaway’s other entries. However, it is perhaps one of his most important works. We’ve shown that one of Greenaway’s chief concerns as a filmmaker is the creation of a visual language, utilizing images instead of text to frame the narrative of a film.

With Japanese calligraphy Greenaway finds the perfect merging of text and image, creating literal and metaphorical layers of visual information with the chapters of Nagiko’s book and the editing techniques he introduced in Prospero’s Books. The calligraphy itself is stunningly beautiful (ten professional calligraphers were employed for this film), especially in an unforgettable scene where Nagiko lets rain wash the ink from her body.


4. Drowning By Numbers (1988)

Drowning By Numbers (1988)

Three women (a grandmother, her daughter, and her niece) — all named Cissie Colpitts —drown their husbands and manipulate the local coroner, Madgett (Bernard Hill) into helping them cover up their crimes. Numbers counting up to one hundred are hidden in each scene and a series of strange games invented by Smut, Madgett’s son, frame the story.

If any of Greenaway’s films fall into the category ‘black comedy’, this is it. His traditional preoccupation with destruction is here pushed over the edge into absurdity as death becomes a literal game. (The titles of Smut’s games include “Deadman’s Catch”, “Hangman’s Cricket” and “The Great Death Game”.) The Colpitts turn their matricide into a competition, and young Smut spends his free time celebrating the deaths of people and animals with fireworks.

Greenaway is in fine form here; visual references to Caravaggio abound and the set dressing and composition of each shot are exquisite. His homage to Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” is a particularly beautiful little detail (the young girl jumping rope and counting the stars to one hundred), her ethereal performance adding to the fairy-tale-like tone of the film.


3. The Baby of Mâcon (1993)

The Baby of Mâcon (1993)

When it was released in England in 1993, this film unleashed a torrent of public outrage comparable to those following the release of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Jean Luc Godard’s “Je vous salue, Marie!” The film was so poorly received at Cannes that it was excluded from the main competition. Afterward, it found no distribution in America; no one would touch it. The controversy stemmed from the film’s depiction of Christianity, another one of Greenaway’s scathing attacks on the church’s greed.

The film begins with an old woman, “the Mother”, giving birth to Mâcon’s first child in many years. The child is barely free of the Mother’s womb when the Daughter (Julia Ormond) steps forward and claims it as her own: a virgin birth. The Daughter then imprisons the Mother and exploits the town’s reverence of the “miracle” Baby for financial gain.

The church is, naturally, suspicious of the supposed “virgin birth” and sends the Bishop’s Son (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate. Before the Daughter can seduce him and convince him of her virginity the Baby commands a bull to gore the Bishop’s Son, thereby preserving her purity. The church blames the Daughter for the man’s death, takes custody of the Baby, and begins brutally exploiting him. Finally, the Daughter smothers the Baby out of jealousy and is sentenced by the Church to be raped 208 times as punishment.

An overall disturbing film, one can understand why its artistic merits have been overshadowed by its shocking content. Nonetheless, The Baby of Mâcon marks one of Greenaway’s most successful attempts at blurring the boundary between “reality” and theater. The action of the story is supposed to be taking place within a play but the delineation between actor and audience member, and reality and fiction, is constantly blurred. It is also notable for the strength of its biblical allegory and, of course, Julia Ormond’s performance as The Daughter — one so powerful as to be a stand-out among any in Greenaway’s oeuvre.


2. A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

A Zed and Two Noughts (or ZOO) tells the story of the Deuce twins (Brian and Dan Deacon), brothers who work as zoologists and become obsessed with creating time-lapse films of decomposition. After their wives die in a car accident, the two men begin a sexual relationship with the driver of the vehicle, Alba (Andrea Ferreol).

Fascinated with the decay of corpses, the Deuce brothers film the decay of ever larger animals, eventually working their way up the food chain until a human sacrifice is required. Often deferring to conversations about taxonomy and the names of things, the twins’ obsession with decomposition is surpassed only by their desire to order and document it. In the end, it’s all for naught when their carefully crafted final masterpiece is destroyed by a herd of slugs.

A Zed and Two Noughts features some of the filmmaker’s most arresting experimentations with symmetry, composition, and the rules of order. It is a self-conscious film with all the usual art historical references (Vermeer is a big one) supplemented by the very best of Greenaway’s style and wry wit. The imagery is wonderfully surreal (every scene in Alba’s bedroom comes to mind) and exquisitely shot by cinematographer Sacha Vierny.


1. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Directed by Peter Greenaway, 1989)

There is a reason that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the best known among all of Greenaway’s films. It is the result of a synthesis of masterful costuming, set design, acting, music, editing, writing, and directing. It is also, perhaps, one of the greatest depictions of rage on film.

Michael Gambon plays Albert Spica, a gangster who has taken over an upscale restaurant apparently so that he and his thugs can gorge themselves to excess and abuse the staff. The majority of the film takes place in the restaurant which Greenaway has constructed as a single set, allowing the camera to move fluidly between the different rooms. Each room has a different corresponding color, lighting, and costuming for the actors; it is a meticulously done examination of color theory.

The thief’s wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), soon catches the eye of a restaurant patron and book seller named Michael (Alan Howard) and, frustrated with her monstrous husband, begins a love affair with him. Spica finds out about the affair, tortures a kitchen boy to get Michael’s whereabouts, and force-feeds him pages from the books in his store until he is dead. Georgina is enraged when she discovers Michael’s body and decides to conspire with the restaurant’s cook to get revenge. It would be a terrible crime to spoil the ending of the film, but let it be said that the final scene is perhaps Greenaway’s most shocking ever.

Throughout all of this extreme violence, Greenaway remains unflinching and steadfast in his vision. Each frame of the film is lit and composed as if it were a stand-alone artwork. Never has Greenaway found his visual narrative, tone and plot more intertwined.

Michael Nyman’s score sets a proudly sinister tone which Gambon re-enforces with a truly (and wonderfully) despicable performance as the Thief. Mirren, too, is at her best here in a role which affords her the opportunity to show both incredible restraint and range. If Greenaway’s intention is to save us all from the desert of visual illiteracy that is 21st century cinema, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover proves him a success.

Author Bio: Kayla Goggin is a writer and editor living in Savannah, Georgia. She is the editor of the Savannah-based arts blog The Savannah Art Informer. She has a BFA in Art History from the Savannah College of Art & Design.