Peter Greenaway Essay - Critical Essays

Greenaway, Peter


Peter Greenaway 1942-

English director, screenwriter, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Greenaway's career through 2000.

Greenaway is a respected English filmmaker, visual artist, and novelist who has made a reputation with his eccentric and highly self-referential films, which typically incorporate powerful visual imagery and challenging subject material. Through his use of allegory, visual metaphors, text fragments, and high-tech graphics, Greenaway has attempted to showcase and reinterpret a wide range of traditional art forms, such as novels and paintings, through the cinematic medium. Greenaway is best known for his violent, satirical, and controversial film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989).

Biographical Information

Greenaway was born in Newport, Wales, on April 5, 1942. When he was three, his family moved from Wales to Essex, England, where he attended public schools and developed an early interest in painting. In 1962 Greenaway enrolled in the Walthamstow College of Art in east London, where he was exposed to the avant garde films of several European directors including Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard. Greenaway spent three years studying at Walthamstow and, during this period, directed his first short film, Death of Sentiment (1962). His first professional exhibition of paintings took place in 1964 at the Lord's Gallery. While he was still in college, Greenaway also worked as a film critic and documentary editor. In 1965 he took a full-time position as a film editor at London's Central Office of Information, a government statistics and public information institution, where he remained for a decade. He began making short films in the mid-1960s and continued until the late 1970s. In 1980 Greenaway won the British Film Institute Award for his three-hour feature The Falls (1980). After this success, the British Broadcast Company's (BBC) Channel Four—which was committed to featuring independent, nontraditional programming—began to air regularly Greenaway's films, beginning with The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), significantly increasing his exposure as a filmmaker.

Major Works

Greenaway has summarized his filmmaking philosophy as “a conversational dissertation wrapped up in an entertaining narrative form.” A significant range of factors have influenced both his long and short films, including Dutch art, Italian perspective studies, Renaissance painting, the German Baroque period, and French architecture. Many of Greenaway's short films derive their humor from his use of abstract and obscure source material. For example, in two of his best-known experimental works, A Walk through H (1976) and Vertical Features Remake (1976), Greenaway concerns himself with fictitious ornithologist Tulse Luper, a member of the equally fictitious Institute of Reclamation and Restoration. A Walk through H presents a number of convoluted road maps—actually Greenaway's own abstract paintings—devised by Luper to guide a fellow ornithologist. Vertical Features Remake documents the ludicrous academic debates concerning the reconstruction of Luper's lost film on the vertical ordering of certain landscapes. Greenaway is also well known for his near-obsession with structure and form in art—and his protagonists are often employed in the visual arts. The Draughtsman's Contract focuses on a young artist who is commissioned to draft a picture of a large estate. The woman living at the estate pays the draughtsman by providing sexual favors. The film combines elements of the traditional murder-mystery with Baroque period drama as it explores the draughtsman's attempts at imposing order on the natural world—a recurring theme in Greenaway's work. A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) follows a pair of twin scientists, Oliver and Oswald Deuce, who both lose their wives in a car accident. The two become obsessed with trying to rationalize evolution and death through a series of experiments using time-lapse photography to record the decay of dead zoo animals. Greenaway displays a preoccupation with numbers and ordering systems in The Belly of an Architect (1987), which provides an inside look at the workings of the European-American art world. The film's protagonists are two architects—one based on a historical figure, the other purely fictional. The fictional American architect is organizing an exhibition in Rome of the historical architect's works and develops a neurotic fear that he has been poisoned. The film revolves around a numerical structure based on the seven stages of Roman architecture. The Belly of an Architect also examines themes related to art's ability to portray the human form as well as the ethics of reproducing artwork for financial profit. Greenaway's symbol of this practice is a photocopier that spits out images of a human abdomen, which are positioned, grid-like, across a floor. Drowning by Numbers (1988), a mordant study of ritualizing emotion through game-playing, tells the story of a man named Madgett, a coroner, who becomes involved with three murderous women all named Cissie Colpitts. The women bargain with Madgett, who agrees to report the murders that they commit as accidents in exchange for sex. Greenaway once again uses numerical systems to structure the narrative: each of the murders occurs after Madgett and his son Smut play a children's counting game. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, a violent film about decadence, follows an irascible thief and his wife who dine regularly at a restaurant which serves as the central backdrop for the plot. The thief's brutalized wife takes a lover and, after being caught with him and witnessing his horrific murder, starts plotting her own gruesome revenge against her husband. The film features graphic depictions of sex, death, torture, and cannibalism. Greenaway, and a number of reviewers, have commented that the film also functions as an allegory of the politics of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Greenaway later turned his attention to more classical material, capitalizing on high-definition television editing equipment to create the arresting visual imagery in Prospero's Books (1991), a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The story focuses on the twenty-four books that Prospero took with him on his island exile. Greenaway designed a series of “living” books that appear regularly throughout the narrative. The main plot of The Tempest is reenacted through verse and dance, set against Greenaway's elaborate and lavish sets. In Baby of Mâcon (1993), Greenaway once again embraced controversial subject material with this story of a supposed virgin-birth. The film depicts the human body in a number of strikingly graphic images, and includes a violent rape and scenes of a dead baby being chopped to pieces. Greenaway returned to adaptation with The Pillow Book (1996), a cinematic version of the diary of Sei Shonagon, a tenth-century Japanese courtesan. The film revolves around Nagiko, who, as she comes of age, develops a fascination with having Japanese calligraphy written on her body and with writing on the bodies of her lovers. Over the course of the film, Greenaway intersperses thirteen books of erotic poetry set over several time frames and geographical locations. In 1998, Greenaway teamed with Saskia Boddeke to stage Christophe Colomb, a version of the 1930 opera of the same name by Darius Milhaud. The opera incorporated vocal performances with portions of text that were projected onto a screen onstage. In 1999 Greenaway filmed 8[frac12] Women—a tribute to Federico Fellini's film 8[frac12]—which examines archetypes of male sexual fantasy in Western art.

Critical Reception

Greenaway's dedication to the visual arts and his efforts at redefining cinema—which he calls a “grossly conservative medium”—have prompted mainstream critics to view his work with ambivalence. Although many critics have responded positively to his films' striking visual elements, several have concluded that their content and tightly controlled structure are overly esoteric, self-referential, and inaccessible. A number of reviewers have agreed that there is no easy way to describe a Greenaway film. Even reviewers who have been sympathetic to Greenaway's experiments with the film genre have argued that his work occasionally pushes boundaries solely for the sake of testing the limits of conventional tastes. However, some commentators have embraced Greenaway's filmmaking philosophy and have fully supported his testing of traditional limits. Many reviewers have concurred that Greenaway's films are both disturbing and thought-provoking, displaying a unique and consistent vision developed over nearly three decades of filmmaking.

Principal Works

Death of Sentiment [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1962

Train [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1966

Tree [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1966

H is for House [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1973

Water [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1975

Water Wrackets [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1975

Vertical Features Remake [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1976

A Walk through H [director and screenwriter] (short film) 1976

The Falls [director and screenwriter] (film) 1980

The Draughtsman's Contract [director and screenwriter] (film) 1982

A Zed and Two Noughts [director and screenwriter] (film) 1985

The Belly of an Architect [director and screenwriter] (film) 1987

Drowning by Numbers [director and screenwriter] (film) 1988

Fear of Drowning [director and screenwriter] (film) 1988

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover [director and screenwriter] (film) 1989

*A TV Dante: The Inferno Cantos I–VIII [director with Tom Phillips and screenwriter] (short films) 1989

**Prospero's Books [director and screenwriter] (film) 1991

Prospero's Creatures (novel) 1992

The Baby of Mâcon [director and screenwriter] (film) 1993

The Falls (prose) 1994

The Pillow Book (film) [director and screenwriter] 1996

100 Allegories to Represent the World (drawings, prose, and photography) 1998

††Christophe Colomb [with Saskia Boddeke] (libretto) 1998

8[frac12] Women [director and screenwriter] (film) 1999

*This series of short films was produced for television by the BBC. Greenaway's screenplays were based on the first eight cantos of Dante Alighieri's Inferno.

**The screenplay was based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest.

†The screenplay was based on the book by Sei Shonagon.

††The libretto was based on the original opera by Darius Milhaud.


Peter Greenaway and Karen Jaehne (interview date 1984)

SOURCE: Greenaway, Peter, and Karen Jaehne. “The Draughtsman's Contract: An Interview with Peter Greenaway.” Cineaste 13, no. 2 (1984): 13–15.

[In the following interview, Greenaway discusses The Draughtsman's Contract, focusing on the film's emphasis on dialogue and language.]

[Jaehne:] Many of the new British filmmakers are focusing on chapters in history that appear to be “turning points”—Ghandi's India, England between two wars in Chariots of Fire. The Draughtsman's Contract is also a historical recreation—in fact, so deliberately so that you appear to be making or, rather, overstating a point. What is the...

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Peter Greenaway and Don Ranvaud (interview date summer 1987)

SOURCE: Greenaway, Peter, and Don Ranvaud. “The Belly of an Architect.Sight & Sound 56, no. 2 (summer 1987): 193–96.

[In the following interview, Greenaway discusses The Belly of an Architect and the importance of the characters and the setting in the film.]

Peter Greenaway's new film [The Belly of an Architect], which opens in London in the autumn, relates the confrontation in Rome of two architects, one of whom is a historical figure, the other a fictional character. The historical figure is Etienne-Louis Boullée (1728–99), a visionary French architect whose latent influence can be detected in the neo-classical monumentality of the...

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Coco Fusco (review date February 1988)

SOURCE: Fusco, Coco. “Requiem for an Architect.” Art in America 76, no. 2 (February 1988): 31–35.

[In the following positive review, Fusco argues that The Belly of an Architect can be seen as an allegory about the inner workings of the art world, particularly how art “products” are packaged for public consumption.]

Since the Neo-Classical revival of the 18th century, English artists and intellectuals have escaped to Italy seeking sun, sensuality and the sources of Western art. As a young painter in the 1960s, Peter Greenaway also made the obligatory pilgrimage to Rome and found inspiration there in the architecture. But when the...

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Suzanne Moore (review date 9 September 1988)

SOURCE: Moore, Suzanne. “Filming by Numbers.” New Statesman & Society 1, no. 14 (9 September 1988): 48–49.

[In the following review, Moore examines Greenaway's preoccupation with order in Drowning by Numbers and criticizes his stereotypical characters.]

Peter Greenaway is a clever, cultured man who makes clever, cultured films. So clever, in fact, he managed to get a special programme on Channel 4 just to explain his latest effort. Fear of Drowning is both a guide to, and an analysis of, Drowning by Numbers. In it he sounds like a man with a plan, someone with a trick or two up their sleeve: precious, pretentious and profound—rather...

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Anthony Quinn (review date 9 September 1988)

SOURCE: Quinn, Anthony. “Painting by Degrees.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4458 (9 September 1988): 991.

[In the following review of Drowning by Numbers, Quinn offers a negative assessment of Greenaway's sparse characterizations and empty plot.]

The director's notes in the rather lavish press kit to Drowning by Numbers inform us that the film is about “the conspiracy of women.” This theme is not a new one for Peter Greenaway: the brash arriviste Mr Neville is undone by the aristocratic mother and daughter in The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), and The Belly of an Architect (1987) charted the slow, sad disintegration of a man...

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Peter Greenaway and Ruth Perlmutter (interview date winter 1989)

SOURCE: Greenaway, Peter, and Ruth Perlmutter. “Peter Greenaway: An Inter-Review.” Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities (winter 1989): 56–63.

[In the following interview, Greenaway discusses his filmmaking techniques and the place of cinema in the world of art.]

In his new film Drowning by Numbers, Peter Greenaway resumes the preoccupations of his previous films that often earned him accusations of mannerism, elitism, and intellectual exhibitionism. As in his earlier feature films, The Falls (1980), The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), A Zed and Two Noughts (1986), and The Belly of an Architect (1987), Greenaway shows an...

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Sean French (review date autumn 1989)

SOURCE: French, Sean. “Spit Roast.” Sight and Sound 58, no. 4 (autumn 1989): 277–78.

[In the following review, French offers a positive assessment of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, complimenting the film's visual style.]

Eating is a constant theme in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. More oddly, as Donald Spoto observed in his biography, lavatories recur to a quite obsessive degree throughout his oeuvre. During his conversations with François Truffaut, Hitchcock, the greatest of cinematic gourmets, spoke of an ambition to make a film that would portray the life of a city through its food. It would show the raw ingredients being transported...

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Suzanne Moore (review date 20 October 1989)

SOURCE: Moore, Suzanne. “Body Horror.” New Statesman & Society 2, no. 72 (20 October 1989): 48–49.

[In the following review, Moore praises the visual style in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, but criticizes the film's lack of substance.]

This week I don't need an excuse. I can talk serious crap. I mean excremental culture, I mean the new Peter Greenaway film. Which is, after all, about eating and shitting and dying and fucking, but not necessarily in that order. It is about the capacity of human beings to turn everything they consume into shit. It is about greed and evil and revenge. It's the bottom line according to Greenaway, bottom...

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Alan Jenkins (review date 3 November 1989)

SOURCE: Jenkins, Alan. “Rutting and Rotting.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4518 (3 November 1989): 1212.

[In the following mixed review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Jenkins argues that the character of the “Thief” is neither believable nor original.]

“The naughty bits and the dirty bits are very close together,” blurts Albert Spica, the villain of this piece, a few minutes into it; and thereafter we are seldom allowed to forget how much eating owes to death and sex to food, and how all flesh bears the taint of corruption.

Peter Greenaway's rich, dark fantasy, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover,...

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Leonard Quart (review date 1990)

SOURCE: Quart, Leonard. Review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, by Peter Greenaway. Cineaste (1990): 45–47.

[In the following review, Quart argues that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is solely “an exercise in style,” and that the film, though aesthetically pleasing, is superficial.]

Peter Greenaway is an English director whose films have always aimed at provoking an audience. In the past, excepting the critical success of his first feature, The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), his films have failed to receive commercial distribution in the U.S. With the success of his Jacobean-style, black comic fable, The Cook,...

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Stuart Klawans (review date 7 May 1990)

SOURCE: Klawans, Stuart. Review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, by Peter Greenaway. Nation 250, no. 18 (7 May 1990): 644–46.

[In the following review, Klawans offers a negative assessment of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, calling it “a film of ideas by a man who hasn't really got any.”]

Albert Spica doesn't know much, but he knows there's a connection between sex and food. It's the sort of Freudian tidbit of which a gangster—or any upwardly mobile lout such as Albert—may feel proud. Similarly, he's proud of owning an elegant restaurant, Le Hollandais, and an elegant wife, Georgina, and abuses them both—for their...

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John Simon (review date 14 May 1990)

SOURCE: Simon, John. “Bon Appetit!” National Review 42, no. 9 (14 May 1990): 52–56

[In the following review, Simon examines the weaknesses of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, referring to the film as “altogether undesirable.”]

Peter Greenaway's latest, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, is a film whose detestableness is heralded by its ponderous title. Have you noticed, by the way, the depredations of the ampersand on film titling? It is a dependable harbinger of disaster, as recently in Stanley & Iris, and now in what I'll shorten to CTW&L. Why those ampersands? It wasn't Romeo & Juliet...

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Richard Alleva (review date 1 June 1990)

SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Something to Gag On.” Commonweal 117, no. 11 (1 June 1990): 351–53.

[In the following negative review, Alleva argues that although The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover can be viewed as a political allegory, Greenaway's over-indulgences in the film quickly become annoying.]

The English film director Peter Greenaway is a startling picture maker and a lousy storyteller. In Cinematic Utopia he would be commissioned to create short, abstract works packed with dazzling and abrasive images linked together only by formal aptness and some kind of dream logic. But, because he works in a business which produces mainly fictional...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 4 June 1990)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Tales of Two Cities.” New Republic 202, no. 23 (4 June 1990): 24–25.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann offers a negative assessment of The Belly of an Architect, criticizing Greenaway's lack of focus and commenting that “absolutely nothing is accomplished in this film.”]

The success, or at least the notoriety, of Peter Greenaway's latest film, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, has prompted the release of one of the films he made between The Draughtsman's Contract and the new one. The Belly of an Architect was done in 1987, and its release adds to the puzzlements of Greenaway's career....

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Michael Wilmington (review date 22 June 1990)

SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. “Dreams Razed in The Belly of an Architect.Los Angeles Times (22 June 1990): F8.

[In the following negative review, Wilmington criticizes the sense of artificiality in The Belly of an Architect.]

Like a jewel with a huge flaw, Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect simultaneously dazzles and disappoints. Made in 1986, and released now in the wake of the art-house success of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, it's another of Greenaway's comic-erotic parables about the artist's nightmare: struggling to produce or celebrate something timeless and perfect, weighed down by the boils and lusts and...

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Richard Blake (review date 23 June 1990)

SOURCE: Blake, Richard. “Metaphor.” America (23 June 1990): 609–13.

[In the following review, Blake offers an unfavorable assessment of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, calling it “a most unpleasant experience to subject the psyche to.”]

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is not a very good film. In fact, it would probably have slipped all but unnoticed into a few “art” houses and vanished without a trace, had it not been for the publicity it received for its X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (M.P.A.A.). The producers complained about the “censorship” and decided to release the film as...

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Edmond Grant (review date October–November 1990)

SOURCE: Grant, Edmond. Review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, by Peter Greenaway. Films in Review 42, nos. 10/11 (October–November 1990): 488–90.

[In the following review, Grant argues that the elements of political allegory in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover cannot adequately emerge because of the film's highly stylized form.]

Although it seems unusual, and highly pretentious, to call vulgarity “aesthetic,” the brand of vulgarity practiced in this masterfully overdone work [The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover] from director Peter Greenaway is just that. Which is not to say that it's pretty, or to...

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William F. Van Wert (review date winter 1990–1991)

SOURCE: Van Wert, William F. Review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, by Peter Greenaway. Film Quarterly 44, no. 2 (winter 1990–1991): 42–50.

[In the following review, Van Wert confronts Greenaway's critics by arguing that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover cannot be analyzed in the traditional manner because of the way that Greenaway views a film as “a total work of art.”]

D. H. Lawrence once defined pornography as the confusion, due to anatomical proximity and cultural interdict, of the reproductive organs with the excretory organs. The scandal is that the confusion still reigns and conspires to give Peter Greenaway's...

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Peter Greenaway and Marcia Pally (interview date 1991)

SOURCE: Greenaway, Peter, and Marcia Pally. “Cinema as the Total Art Form: An Interview with Peter Greenaway.” Cineaste 18, no. 3 (1991): 6–11, 45.

[In the following interview, Greenaway discusses the critical response to his films and his approach to filmmaking.]

Born in England in 1942, Peter Greenaway attended what he calls “a minor English public school that preserves the worst traditions—fagging, burning the pubic hair of new boys, that sort of Godawful activity.” After completing the Forest Public School, Greenaway resisted his parents' plan to send him to university and went instead to the Walthamstow School of Art in east London. He exhibited for...

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David Wills and Alec McHoul (essay date spring 1991)

SOURCE: Wills, David and Alec McHoul. “Zoo-logics: Questions of Analysis in a Film by Peter Greenaway.” Textual Practice 5, no. 1 (spring 1991): 8–24.

[In the following essay, Wills and McHoul examine how A Zed and Two Noughts functions as an “intellectual exercise,” arguing that the film's more traditional elements—plot, character, themes—come across as contrived.]


The forms of texts that we might call, for want of a better word, postmodern, are not unfamiliar to us. We can immediately call to mind Joyce, the nouveau roman, so-called metafiction, Pynchon, DeLillo and so on. And we can argue about the applicability...

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Peter Greenaway and Adam Barker (interview date May 1991)

SOURCE: Greenaway, Peter, and Adam Barker. “A Tale of Two Magicians.” Sight and Sound 1, no. 1 (May 1991): 27–30.

[In the following interview, Greenaway discusses how he developed the idea for Prospero's Books, how high-definition television influenced the look of the film, and the differences between male and female protagonists in his work.]

Flaunting their erudition and relishing their overt staginess, Peter Greenaway's films divide audiences. There are those prepared to entertain his conceits and play the game, and others for whom a Greenaway film is about as exciting as a guided tour through an ancient museum where the catalogue has been lost. What is...

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Jonathan Romney (review date September 1991)

SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. Review of Prospero's Books, by Peter Greenaway. Sight and Sound 1, no. 5 (September 1991): 44–45.

[In the following review, prefaced by a plot summary, Romney comments on Greenaway's use of new film techniques in Prospero's Books and examines how the film merges images with theme.]

The early seventeenth century. On a secluded island, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, sits in his palace surrounded by a retinue of magical spirits, and begins to improvise the text of Shakespeare's The Tempest. As he speaks the lines, the action unfolds. … A storm blows up at sea, threatening the boat carrying Alonso, King of Naples,...

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David Nokes (review date 13 September 1991)

SOURCE: Nokes, David. “Spell-bound.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4615 (13 September 1991): 19.

[In the following review, Nokes argues that although the central character's performance in Prospero's Books is laudable, the film relies too heavily on technical effects.]

Dryden wrote of Shakespeare's apparent lack of book-learning, “he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there.” Peter Greenaway disagrees. In Prospero's Books, he assumes the spectacles of books to furnish The Tempest with a highly learned gloss. His myriad visual allusions are like a thousand illuminated footnotes decorating the...

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Howard A. Rodman (essay date November–December 1991)

SOURCE: Rodman, Howard A. “Anatomy of a Wizard.” American Film 16, no. 10 (November–December 1991): 35–39.

[In the following essay on the making of Prospero's Books, Rodman talks with Greenaway about how he manipulated visual images for the film using high-definition equipment.]

Tokyo, the Shibuya District. On a sunny midday in February, the streets are dense with purposeful pedestrians. But if the image is Japanese, the text is English: Signage—massive, outsize, in paint, in neon, in pulsating arrays of electric-bulb dot matrix—shouts out Coke, Amtrak Discotheque, Newport Beach Fashion's Island.

Just across the avenue at the edge...

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Richard Alleva (review date 31 January 1992)

SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. Review of Prospero's Books by Peter Greenaway. Commonweal 119, no. 2 (31 January 1992): 25–26.

[In the following negative review, Alleva praises John Gielgud's performance in Prospero's Books, claiming that it saves an otherwise “shallow” film.]

Peter Greenaway, a self-preening postmodernist who couldn't articulate the simplest story to save his life, has made an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest called Prospero's Books. Wisely coasting on his small but undeniable flair for Felliniesque imagery and, even more wisely, hiring Sir John Gielgud to play Prospero, Greenaway has managed to give us a...

(The entire section is 723 words.)

Nathaniel Bird (review date January–February 1992)

SOURCE: Bird, Nathaniel. Review of Prospero's Books, by Peter Greenaway. Films in Review 43, nos. 1–2 (January–February 1992): 49–50.

[In the following review, Bird praises the stunning visuals of Prospero's Books, but acknowledges that the film may be inaccessible to most audiences.]

One thing must be said about Peter Greenaway: he is unique among today's filmmakers. While most of America is content to watch not only the same film genres over and over (a spate of age-reversal films, back-to-the-past films, science-fiction westerns, undersea horror, etc.) but, worse, the continuation of the same film over and over (The Godfather Part...

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Peggy Phelan (essay date May 1992)

SOURCE: Phelan, Peggy. “Numbering Prospero's Books.Performing Arts Journal 41, no. 2 (May 1992): 43–50.

[In the following essay, Phelan analyzes the important role that numbers and numerical structures play in Prospero's Books.]

James I, like many powerful men, had a short attention span. Like the “target audience” for most contemporary Hollywood films, James preferred fast action, elaborate scenery, and good music with a simple plot. Given the politics of theatrical patronage it is not surprising that Renaissance drama lost out to the masque as the King's favorite mode of nationalist art. Before the masque triumphed, however, theatre tried to...

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Geoffrey Macnab (review date September 1993)

SOURCE: Macnab, Geoffrey. Review of The Baby of Mâcon, by Peter Greenaway. Sight and Sound 3, no. 9 (September 1993): 41.

[In the following negative review, Macnab argues that the acting and the technological innovations in The Baby of Mâcon fall short of Greenaway's previous films.]

Early in this nativity play-within-a-film, a doddering prelate peers under the skirts of a young, would-be Madonna, trying to ascertain whether or not she is a virgin, but comes out stumped. “I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking for,” he says. His confusion is likely to be shared by audiences as they survey the picture as a whole. An unwieldy mix of Mariolatry...

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Peter Greenaway and Nick James (essay date November 1996)

SOURCE: Greenaway, Peter, and Nick James. “Body Talk.” Sight and Sound 6, no. 11 (November 1996): 14–17.

[In the following essay, James and Greenaway explore the concept of “visual language” in Greenaway's The Pillow Book.]

No single way of describing Peter Greenaway's new film, The Pillow Book, is adequate to its combination of schemes and experiences. The film derives from the classic Japanese text The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a diary written by a tenth-century court lady, containing reports of lovers, aesthetic observations and lists of favoured objects or activities. Excerpts from this appear in the film, but Greenaway wanted to find a...

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Mariacristina Cavecchi (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Cavecchi, Mariacristina. “Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books: A Tempest between Word and Image.” Literature Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1997): 83–90.

[In the following essay, Cavecchi studies how Greenaway's use of technological devices in Prospero's Books mirrors the illusions that Shakespeare originally created in The Tempest.]

In [Prospero's Books,] Greenaway develops and focuses on the aesthetic and mannerist aspects of the Shakespearean text, while he does not seem to care too much about the other very important Shakespearean themes, such as power or history.1 As far as it is possible to generalize about the relation...

(The entire section is 4298 words.)

Kenneth Turan (review date 6 June 1997)

SOURCE: Turan, Kenneth. “Greenaway's Pillow Book is Another Exercise in Style.” Los Angeles Times (6 June 1997): F11.

[In the following negative review, Turan argues that the beautiful visuals in The Pillow Book do not make up for the film's “mechanical” style.]

Despite its arresting visual style, its wave after wave of creative and hypnotic images, The Pillow Book, as its name hints, slowly but inexorably leads to sleep.

Written and directed by Peter Greenaway, The Pillow Book is more coherent and plotted than his last film, the understandably little seen The Baby of Mâcon. But it shares with that and...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

John Simon (review date 14 July 1997)

SOURCE: Simon, John. Review of The Pillow Book, by Peter Greenaway. National Review 49, no. 13 (14 July 1997): 53–55.

[In the following review, Simon offers a positive assessment of The Pillow Book, calling the film “overwhelming” and “blissfully liberating.”]

Crazy, as is well known, comes in two forms: like a fox and like a loon—madness with method in it, or just plain dementia. The British filmmaker Peter Greenaway partakes of both: some of his films come across more foxy than loony, others the reverse. The Pillow Book, his latest, is on the cusp: you are never sure whether it is the work of a coolly cerebral prestidigitator or an...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

Jacqui Sadashige (review date December 1997)

SOURCE: Sadashige, Jacqui. Review of The Pillow Book, by Peter Greenaway. American Historical Review 102, no. 5 (December 1997): 1598–599.

[In the following review, Sadashige discusses the geographical and temporal movement in The Pillow Book.]

The flourishing of feminine vernacular literature that occurred during the Heian period (794–1185 CE) produced two Japanese “classics”: Murasaki Shikibu's epic The Tale of Gengi and the Makura no Shōshi (“pillow book”) of Sei Shōnagon. It is from the latter that Peter Greenaway's latest film derives both its title and its structuring premise. Like its tenth-century model—a diary-like...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

David Drew (review date 4 December 1998)

SOURCE: Drew, David. “Athwart the Paradise of the Idea.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4992 (4 December 1998): 18–20.

[In the following review, Drew traces the history of Christophe Colomb and discusses Greenaway's reinterpretation of the opera.]

The new staging of Christophe Colomb by Saskia Boddeke and the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway is the first in Germany since Erich Kleiber conducted the world premiere at the same house sixty-seven years ago, and the first in any capital city since then. Despite the notable absence of the Staatsoper's musical director, Daniel Barenboim, the team lead by Georg Quander—the Intendant—has set an example...

(The entire section is 4864 words.)

Chantal Cornut-Gentille D'Arcy (essay date April 1999)

SOURCE: D'Arcy, Chantal Cornut-Gentille. “Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.Literature Film Quarterly 27, no. 2 (April 1999): 116–25.

[In the following essay, D'Arcy examines The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover as a commentary on gender roles and political Thatcherism.]

In spite of a deceptively simple title that conjures up all the charm of a folk tale, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is, to say the least, a complex film so divergent in its various implications as to defy the possibility of any single explanation. However, it is precisely the multiplicity of possible interpretations that...

(The entire section is 6302 words.)

Richard Falcon (review date January 2000)

SOURCE: Falcon, Richard. Review of 8[frac12] Women, by Peter Greenaway. Sight and Sound 10, no. 1 (January 2000): 48–49.

[In the following review, Falcon offers a negative assessment of 8[frac12] Women, arguing that the film is limited by Greenaway's self-referential style.]

8[frac12] Women sets out its organising principles in the title while the director Peter Greenaway offers in the press notes his customary auto-exegesis for baffled critics, explaining that the film is constructed around an intentionally comic parade of eight and a half archetypes of male sexual fantasy, as represented in western art practice down the ages. For each figure, a...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Peter Greenaway and Hugh Aldersey-Williams (interview date March 2000)

SOURCE: Greenaway, Peter, and Hugh Aldersey-Williams. “Peter Greenaway: Against the Tyranny of Cinema.” Graphis, no. 2 (March 2000): 96–104.

[In the following interview, Greenaway discusses what he sees as the four “tyrannies of cinema”—the text, the actors, the camera, and the frame.]

Peter Greenaway's work typically provokes mainstream critics into revealing their cozy preference for all films to be essentially the same: “dramatic” stories, told in dialogue form, with famous actors playing clear roles. Greenaway sees different potentials. His films for the cinema and television, helped in recent years by the prolific use of digital media technology,...

(The entire section is 4237 words.)

Kevin Thomas (review date 26 May 2000)

SOURCE: Thomas, Kevin. “Rich Characters, Absurdist Humor in 8[frac12] Women.Los Angeles Times (26 May 2000): F14.

[In the following positive review, Thomas praises 8[frac12] Women, noting that it is “one of Greenaway's most amusing and accessible” films to date.]

Peter Greenaway's 8[frac12] Women is a nod to Fellini—and that “half” turns out to be a typically dark Greenaway twist. No artistic temperaments could be more different than those of Greenaway and Fellini. Greenaway is the detached, pitiless intellectual whose magistral experimental flourishes can be recondite in the extreme, whereas Fellini is the lyrical, compassionate...

(The entire section is 672 words.)

Further Reading


Collins, Amy Fine, and Bradley Collins. “Drowning the Text.” Art in America 80, no. 6 (June 1992): 53–55.

Collins and Collins examine the numerous allusions and references in Prospero's Books, which they claim are successful in “translating the art historical into the cinematic.”

Gras, Vernon. “Dramatizing the Failure to Jump the Culture/Nature Gap: The Films of Peter Greenaway.” New Literary History 26, no. 1 (winter 1995): 123–43.

Gras examines the allegory, metaphor, and subtext in Greenaway's feature-length films, up to Prospero's Books.

Greenaway, Peter, and...

(The entire section is 336 words.)