Peter Greenaway's 2015 Eisenstein in Guanajuata is a silly, pretentious film, further distressed by comically bad acting. The actors are not really to blame -- they try hard, but the material given them to perform is simply unworkable. Consider, for instance, a long sex scene in which a brooding, handsome Mexican professor of Comparative Religion initiates Eisenstein into the pleasures of anal intercourse. The professor obligingly pours a little aceite (olive oil?) down the center of the Russian film maker's back, the fluid draining along his spinal column into Eisenstein's rump. Then, he penetrates the hero making some small talk about deflowering him and how all virgins must suffer the pain of love -- poor Eisenstein squeals and protests, dipping his fingers in his rectal blood. Then, the Mexican laboriously thrusts away at Eisenstein's buttocks while similarly belaboring him with a long and tedious lecture about how syphilis spread from Mexico through the Old World, how the Old World is really the New World, and how the Old New World ended up buggering, I guess, the New Old World. Eisenstein's response is cogent: "You tell me all these things while your prick is in my ass." I submit to you that Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro or Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud couldn't make any sense of a scene this idiotic and portentously written. That said, the scene is visually impressive, filmed with the kind of hollow spectacle that you find in a Vogue or Cosmopolitan fashion shoot -- the two men are posed on a huge bed set within a Pantheon-like structure of classical columns and pediments, the floor made from a mosaic of semi-opaque panels and lit from below. It's all sublimely theatrical, densely rhetorical, and totally ridiculous.
Peter Greenaway, once the darling of the film world, hasn't really gone away. His movies are just harder to see. At least 18 different production companies financed Eisenstein and the film announces that it is a Finnish -- Netherlands -- Belgian -- Mexican co-production and one can imagine that the pitch for this film would have been a hard-sell: the great Russian film maker suffers an emotional crisis in Mexico, has sex for the first time, and, then, is recalled to Mother Russia with 250 miles of film but no movie to show for his efforts. Not that many people care about Eisenstein any more -- I am old enough to recall surveys from the early 60's in which The Battleship Potemkin was still considered the greatest movie ever made. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein's currency, such as it was, has greatly faded -- I think number one on most lists today in either The Godfather or Vertigo, the products of the high Capitalist era. Greenaway has always been a peculiar film maker, a formalist who devises his films according to abstract parameters (the letters of the alphabet, the periodic table of elements, etc.) and, then, applies his fantastically overt and dictatorial style to the most lurid material possible -- incest, cannibalism, all sort of murder and mutilation are central to the plots of his films. An example of the extreme disjunction between Greenaway's style and his subject matter is on exhibit in Eisenstein -- the hero tours the town's famous "Mummy Museum" and Greenaway shows close-ups of the horrific-looking corpses shot in the most beautiful raking light imaginable; this sequence almost justifies the movie -- the director films the rotting bodies as if they were Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. To what effect, however, I don't know.
Greenaway's earlier films used to be about something aside from themselves -- they had some spastic connection to real life. There is a love affair, sibling, rivalry, and a murder, for instance, in Greenaway's best film, the astounding Zed and Two Noughts (ZOO). In his recent movies, however, Greenaway focuses on works of art: Nightwatching was about Rembrandt's painting "The Night Watch" and Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012 -- which I have not seen) takes as it topic the minor Dutch engraver and painter Hendrik Goltzius. Thus, Greenaway is making films that are about art -- this puts his scenario not one, but two removes, from any recognizable reality and, therefore, inspires in his viewers, more often than not, a shrug of the shoulders. In Eisenstein, we are advised that the Russian director made October, styled in the West Ten Days that Shook the World, and that this film is about "ten days that shook Eisenstein." Obviously, there is a reason we might care about the October Revolution (the ten days that shook the world), but do we really care that much about Eisenstein's sex life? The answer is that we don't and we shouldn't.
The film is full of brittle chatter about the continuity between death and life and, like every movie set in Mexico, features some elaborate Day of the Dead imagery. Most of the discourse about Mexico comes out of a Lonely Planet tour guide --it's all pretty glib and obvious. A central image is someone pounding on a radiator -- Greenaway's narrator has to tell us in the end that Eisenstein suffered a heart attack in 1948 (he was only 50), pounded for three hours on his radiator to call for help, and was ignored. There are interesting anecdotes about Upton Sinclair and his equestrian-obsessed wife -- the couple financed Eisenstein's stay in Mexico until they pulled the plug when it became obvious the director had miles of footage in the can but nothing like a movie. We learn that Eisenstein's staging of the October revolution was far more violent and destructive than the actual revolution -- he shot in the Winter Palace and broke much more glass than the more fastidious revolutionaries in the actual event. The movie is handsome, the screen often cut into a triptych, and there is a gorgeous and melodic soundtrack comprised of Prokofiev classics. The film is shot in the Teatro Juarez, apparently a landmark in Guanajuato, and when Eisenstein enters the place, we see Potemkin on the screen while a full orchestra accompanies the silent film -- it's hallucinatory because no one else is in the theater. Greenaway uses many shots from Eisenstein's films, sometimes as part of the triptych, sometimes playing incongruously in windows or doorways behind the characters. But despite all of the sound and fury, Greenaway doesn't effectively explore what went wrong in Mexico -- my thesis is that something in Mexico defeated Eisenstein's concept of dialectical montage, that Mexico doesn't submit so easily to the discipline of montage made from fragmentary editing and that, perhaps, there is an unity intrinsic to Mexican reality that can't be reflected in snippets of film cut into opposition with one another. The movie contains two extraordinary camera effects, shots of a kind that I have never seen before. In one effect, space is distorted Escher-style around a small centrally located lozenge shown in ordinary perspective, the rest of the image wildly twisted and curved into some kind of Einstein- space-time-loop. The other effect is more subtle, but even stranger -- the camera tracks relentlessly through a space and, suddenly, at the edge of the image we see the figures that the camera is tracking that are at the center of the picture -- how can the figure be within a continuous space at two different locations? somehow, we see in one shot both the before and after of the character's movement but without any palpable frame between the two. (On the DVD, there is an interview with the Finnish and Mexican actors who play Eisenstein and his lover respectively -- they confess that they have no idea how this effect was achieved.)