Peter Greenaway Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.