Peter Greenaway

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Peter Greenaway and Karen Jaehne (interview date 1984)

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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 context?

[Greenaway:] The narrative structure of the movie covers a number of themes. It's set in 1694, a crucial time for English history—a moving out of the old Catholic Stuart dynasty and a moving in of a Protestant-inspired, basically mercantile nouveau-riche aristocracy coming in from northern Europe. This time of changing values gave me an opportunity to fictionalize and invent characters and attitudes, which are not perhaps totally historically correct but do have some basis in historical fact.

Who is the draughtsman?

There were toward the end of the 17th century a whole mass of painters, draughtsmen, and architects, who earned their living by going around the country—basically in southern England where all the wealth had accumulated—and drawing the houses of rich men. It was a form of status seeking. A rich man would have his property drawn, then prints made and engravings passed around among his friends and neighbors as a prestigious gift, in the way, for example, today—but a much more humdrum level—one might send postcards of one's house. These men existed much further down the social scale than I have made the draughtsman. There is evidence that such people had much greater status in northern France and part of Germany, but in England it could be said that they were not much more important, shall we say, than the head of the stables? I do believe that I have taken a reasonable license, however, because we are not talking about London, not about Bristol, but rather about stretches of rural England of a very parochial nature and isolated from the culture coming over from France.

There is an obvious attempt at perfectionism in the film, so much so that many people have compared your work with that of Stanley Kubrick, who works on a much greater budget. But there is also a self-consciousness about the perfection your draughtsman seeks. Is fastidiousness a flaw here?

Of course there have been those comparisons, particularly in respect to Barry Lyndon, but the general nature of the recreation appeals to people who look for that in a film. There were also many comparisons to the movie Tom Jones, quite another matter! For me, the temperament is derived much more from French cinema—for example, Last Year at Marienbad by Alain Resnais or Eric Rohmer's The Marquise von O, and to a certain extent, even Fellini's Casanova. These were all films that related back to the, if you will, genre of the film—so much so that a cinema in Bristol put on a season of films called “The Draughtsman's Context,” which included all those films that by accident or design, unconsciously or quite consciously influenced the film.

The deliberate, thoughtful visual quality of the film can be traced back to late 17th century painting—Carravagio, de La Tour, even late Raphael and so on and the famous interiors of the Dutch painters. Some of the compositions have been taken over and moved consciously into the film, sometimes with a rather blasphemous result,...

(This entire section contains 2570 words.)

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because the original paintings have an ecclesiastical feel about them. For example, two compositions are absolutely integral to the film and center around the signing of the sexual contract. They are based on a painting by Georges de La Tour which, in fact, includes the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, so that the visual metamorphosis is one in which women have been changed from their religious counterparts to completely “lay” (if you will) equivalents.

The painterly manner of the film is also a result of the stationary camera. In this age of frenetic camera work, weren't you afraid of a static and possibly boring image?

One of the essential conceits of the film is that the camera does not move. Of course, there are a few occasions when it slides slightly from side to side—at mealtimes—but that is the only time and it is extremely inorganic. It is a mechanical movement.

Now there are three reasons for this. First, the facetious reason: paintings don't move. Secondly, with a still camera you throw the emphasis on the dialogue and soundtrack. It is extremely important that all the words are heard—not just heard, but listened to, because of the puns, conundrums, word plays, red herrings and so on. It is necessary to keep your ears tuned or you'll lose something. Thirdly, it is a sheer reaction to the St. Vitus dance of filmmaking over the last years. It seems to me that most camera work is done for no good structural reason, or even good emotional or mood reason. The desire to keep the camera on the move is an unnecessary pursuit by international filmmakers.

This film has been called the first entertaining structuralist film. How could you be sure it would entertain?

Well, it was meant that way, in spite of all its intellectual pretensions. I sometimes go into the cinema to eavesdrop on the audiences. If they're sitting there, hand-to-brow looking very serious, it's a great disappointment to me. I want people to enjoy its visual splendors. I want people to get caught up in its intellectual games.

The major intellectual game is a murder, and the clues are built in to the scenes the draughtsman is agonizing about—for the wrong reasons, it turns out. How did you develop this elaborate method or art of framing not only the image but also the artist within it?

Well, I have also made over twenty films, all of them concerned with questions of representation, which applies as much to language as it does to visual phenomena. Do words say what we mean them to say? When we phrase an idea, are we using the right words to phrase it? What words don't mean, or appear not to mean, has always been of interest from my very first films—some three and a half minutes long. That has been a continuing concern that gets me into certain kinds of trouble, because a lot of these films don't travel well. If those who understand English have trouble, what on earth do the French, Italians and Belgians make of this?

The Draughtsman's Contract has taken a period of history when so-called conversational style was very formal. But there again, if you examine the dialogue, you'll find it is based on the contemporary playwrights of the period, Sheridan, Congreve, but you will also find a considerable difference. Because I don't think there is much point in reproducing a period for its own sake.

To that extent, you differ from Kubrick's attitude toward the recreation for Barry Lyndon?

Yes, perhaps. The Draughtsman's Contract takes cognizance of the 300 years of history that have passed since 1694 and has developed a language based also on received opinions of that particular era, preconceived ideas of what that period sounded like. It's also very much aware of 20th century idioms. I'm reluctant to call it a period movie. I like to think it has great resonances in the 20th century.

The word usually used for a film like this is “talky,” and that immediately establishes it as intellectual and limits its audience. Have you sensed that reaction, or does the visual elegance simply overwhelm the critics?

I am in no way apologetic for having made a “talkie.” I would like to stand up and say this very loudly, clearly! Words have become integral to certain sorts of filmmaking. It's not a particularly American tradition, not even an English one, but it's certainly a French, Italian and German tradition. Many people find this an aberration for British cinema and call The Draughtsman's Contract a “continental” film. The film is prepared to trade ideas, to put up arguments, red herrings and cul-de-sacs and to play with the whole business of conversation. I would like to think that's what it does: it plays with ideas through words. The fact that it is also beautiful to look at, if I may be so modest, in no way detracts from this phenomenon, because I think there is a useful symbiosis between the look and the sound of a film.

I was struck by the ability of the music to express so much about the story and the period. Is it contemporary? How did you go about coordinating so many stylized, or stylish, and arch elements?

It is an important binding—cement, if you like—between the sound and the images. It was composed by a friend of mine, Michael Nyman. We have collaborated on the last five or six films, and he is also interested in the whole business of organizing material. He is what might loosely be called a systemic composer, owing a lot to the American composers like Steve Wright and so on. We are both concerned to find some equitable balance between music and the visual image. Traditionally in the filmmaking process, the visual image is decided on and the composer is brought along at a much later stage, which puts music in a secondary, even tertiary position, which I find unsatisfactory. So we had to find a working method whereby we both collaborated at a quite early stage to ensure that the music lent the film some structural significance.

There seems to be a tendency to think the score is derived from 17th century music. Where did the modern application affect it?

The music is based on the English composer Henry Purcell. What has happened is that Michael has taken certain phrases, certain note structures, and incidentally, the music of that period had a great deal in common with modern systemic music. It's based on layers, repetitions, cyclic movement within the use of notes. Any ear that knows the music of Händel or Purcell will immediately recognize that the history of music in the 300 years since the time have been utilized in the structure of the score.

Considering the abundant symbols and careful layering of clues within the tableaux, isn't there a danger of making a recondite film? What can you tell us to help us understand where to look and what to look for in the first viewing? It's a film that will require a second, third, and, I'd guess, a still delighted fourth viewing.

I would like to think that the film worked on many different levels, and the kind of criticism that has been generated over its puzzles leads me to believe it means many things to many people—both intended and un-. For example, one English newspaper interpreted the whole game of the film as a description of the problems in English football. There are references to lost shirts and hidden football boots, and the players all change their colors at half-time. This is a wonderfully amusing approach to the film which I take no great pains to deny. I'm so glad people can find such references. It's also been regarded as an anti-Thatcher allegory, too, about outsiders trying to become part of the establishment and ultimately being repulsed. It's been regarded as a pro-feminist film and, likewise, an anti-feminist film. Someone wrote that it was an allegory of neo-colonialism with a reference to Britain's rather unfortunate past in Africa. All these things I take under advisement. Precisely because it's not a mindless entertainment, it intrigues people looking for some further significance and allows them to project into it what they will. I made the film to entertain, not to instruct, so if I knew what it “meant,” I'd be the last to tell.

One London observer opined that the reason your box office in England has been right up there with E.T. is that the eroticism brings in the crowds. Do you think they find a solution to their problem?

It's my belief—one certainly shared with a lot of other people—that the greater sense of eroticism can be gained by suggestion rather than shall we say a catalog of gynecological details? I believe the eroticism is much more implied than seen, and that is a much more satisfactory state of affairs.

What are we to make of the naked sprite in the garden? Is he a witness? The culprit? The victim? A shadow of the ni. … ?

I've come to the point that I have serious doubts about that figure. If so many people ask, I may have slightly miscalculated in this thing. I sometimes wonder if I should have elucidated the mystery more. But, at any rate, that particular statue is informed by two conceits. In northern Europe, and particularly in England at that time, it was fashionable to have in your garden hollow statues made of lead and hooked up to the local water supply. The idea was the your unsuspecting guest would walk by the statue and a gardener would turn a hidden tap, and the water would spurt out and spray the guest. It was considered very humorous. Great ingenuity was applied to this particular trick, and it obviously amused them.

The second conceit is that England, after a long period of turmoil and strife, was at last settling down to a period of prosperity, and the sons of landed gentry were being sent abroad to complete their education. They took off on what was known as the Grand Tour and ended up in either Rome or Greece. It was terribly current then to bring back mementos of their tour, since neo-Classicism was quite the thing, and a statue did nicely. (It's all beginning again with Melina Mercouri complaining about the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum!) Another way of seeing that figure is that the landowner was either too mean or too uninformed to bring back one of these statues, so he gets one of his minions or servants to dress up and pose in parts of the garden in order to impress his neighbors. Now this particular character, being a bit simple in the head, will perform this task enthusiastically, so that any time anyone is in the garden, he will pop up from the herbage and pose in some approximation to Hermes or Hermaphrodite, or whatever.

But he is also relevant to a tradition in literature of the fool, who is allowed to behave in a way which any more self-respecting mortal would shun. Thereby he can become a silent witness to all sorts of behavior which the other characters do not even take cognizance of. So here the fool steps in, where everybody else is afraid to tread. Because he is the last figure seen, there is an insinuation that he is somehow responsible for what has happened throughout the film.

So who did kill the master of the house?

I could be enigmatic and throw the question back, but for me, everybody was responsible, because everybody had reason to gain from the death of Mr. Herbert. So, like the murder on the Orient Express, everybody is guilty.

Peter Greenaway and Don Ranvaud (interview date summer 1987)

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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 twentieth century Fascist style; and the fictional character is Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy), a middle-aged American who, like Boullée, has received few commissions and who has come to Rome to organise a large-scale exhibition of his predecessor's work. As the film unfolds, Kracklite finds even this project slipping away from him, in part because of the machinations of his ruthlessly ambitious Italian collaborator Caspasian Speckler (Lambert Wilson), whom he suspects of having seduced his wife (Chloe Webb), in part because of an increasingly neurotic obsession with his physical condition and his fear that he might have been poisoned.

[Ranvaud:] In a timely development for you, a new sense of the status of architects has developed in Britain since you started working on The Belly of an Architect, with debates in the press, lavish exhibitions at the Royal Academy on Foster, Rogers and Stirling. Why did you choose this subject?

[Greenaway:] It is a truism of this century that it's easily possible to avoid looking at painting or even reading literature, but it is extremely difficult to avoid dealing in some way with architecture. I like to think, if I may be so arrogant, that it's possible to compare the work of a filmmaker with that of an architect. We both have to be accountable to our backers and to the man in the street, but we also need to satisfy ourselves and our idea of culture. It would be too close to the bone, obviously, to make a film about a filmmaker, so at the back of my mind I have been searching for some time to find an appropriate parallel.

It was said about The Draughtsman's Contract that the filmmaker must have been trained as an architect. Completely untrue, but I was very interested in all that country house architectural side, which of course involves a certain amount of snobbism in the English approach to the country. I was fascinated with the business of photographing architecture, with the logistical problems of parallax, verticals and horizontals; and given that all my film-making is based on grids, there had to be a connection somewhere.

A mixture of personal and aesthetic considerations, then. Which is more important?

They have equal status, although there is a lot that is very personal about this film, more so than the others, I think. But these two main reasons—a semi-autobiographical comment on the relation between the architect/artist and the audience; the wish to use architecture and continue to play with what it's all about—lead me to the third key reason. I have long been attracted to that period between the end of the baroque and what may be described as the modern cultural revivalism of the nineteenth century: that transient period between the end of the Counter Reformation and the beginning of the French Revolution. Our contemporary world seems to reproduce those basic conflicts. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo; then the second period around the French Revolution in the paintings of Poussin, and the third which is the shadow of Picasso on the one hand and Le Corbusier on the other. This is the groundwork, as it were, and one figure in this context—Boullée, hardly known outside architectural circles—seems to straddle them all.

I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Boullée drew and designed a lot, but got nothing built. That seemed to be so symptomatic of film-making. So many films exist only on paper. I have 15–20 scripts in various stages of development and have no doubt that most of them will not be made; if you multiply that by all the active filmmakers around the world, you would probably end with an enormous Tower of Babel or words, of babble. I cannot help thinking that if Boullée's extraordinary drawings had been realised—the size and bulk of his conceptions would fit perfectly well in the twentieth century metropolis—they would have had a great impact on the history of architecture. What would have been phenomenally expensive to build at the time would have generated an atmosphere of daring and enterprise. Of course, the French Revolution produced great turmoil politically and socially but very few cultural artifacts. David's ‘Marat’ is perhaps the only really strong cultural artifact from the period that everybody remembers.

Boullée's times may represent upheavals in Europe, but Britain was relatively stable then, and although you are making films abroad now, you have been defined as the quintessentially English (not British) filmmaker.

At the same time that Boullée is designing buildings, Jane Austen is writing novels: one is looking backward while the other is looking forward. I don't put the two together, for it wouldn't work, but I was sufficiently intrigued by this to write a short essay as though written by Jane Austen on the occasion of a visit to an exhibition of Boullée's work, describing it in her own language to try to define it for her contemporaries. There is a sense in which the past is reconsidered in all my movies. The Draughtsman's Contract is a prime example. I am interested in discovering how we approach history, both in terms of how we think people lived at a particular moment in time, and what were the cultural and aesthetic imperatives in the textures of society. Also, more simply, what is and what isn't true. What happens next, where is culture being pushed toward at any moment, and what are the consequences. I suppose this is more of an eighteenth century attitude than anything else.

Boullée is very much the kind of character you might have invented had he not existed in reality. I must confess I thought at first you had invented him, until I remembered a passing tribute to him in the building of the disco hall at the end of Bertolucci's Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man.

He is indeed the ideal man for Kracklite to invent.

Are you not Kracklite, then?

I'm sure a thesis could be organised to demonstrate a correlation. It might fall down on closer examination, but the frustrations of a man dedicated to setting up an enormous project and those of a filmmaker cannot be entirely separated. Neither can the idea of the mafia circles around the art world taking it over be completely foreign to movies … there is always a fear that the film or the exhibition might be taken away from you, be used by other people for other ends, leaving you only a footnote in a catalogue. There are also all the domestic problems that accumulate while these situations are being played out.

But the excuse, at least in the film, is that Kracklite is sick.

That, I am happy to say, is not my problem as of this moment. But, well, I don't know how personal I ought to be about it … both my parents died from stomach cancer, my mother recently, my father some time ago. All my films are about loss in some way—A Zed & Two Noughts about a very serious loss, obviously—and although I do not feel extraordinarily emotional about it, somewhere in the back of my mind I want to explore the consideration society gives to cancer as a disease; what we do about it, what it means in our lives. The theme of loss goes right back to A Walk through H, a film made just after the death of my father. So much information gets lost when somebody dies. Whether that information is valuable or not is another matter; it was valuable to me because I learned a lot from my father's phenomenal knowledge of ornithology and ecology. A personal aspect, if you will, lies deep within the film somewhere.

The character of Boullée, as interpreted by Kracklite, gradually recedes in the film. That has a curious and maybe slightly disturbing relation to what you just said. Is Boullée ultimately only a McGuffin?

As always, the man that was conceived in the script isn't perhaps quite the same man that ended up in the film. I think that to begin with it was much more of an ensemble piece, where the other characters like Kracklite's wife and her lover—the Italian side of the exhibition—were much more vigorous. Brian Dennehy turned in such an extraordinary performance that the film has become more like a true biography. He is in almost every frame. The other factor which helped to shape it in this way was having to cut the film down to a reasonable length.

Boullée made some very foolish mistakes and his judgment was generally poor: his obsessions destroyed his common sense, and you feel he is a victim of his own stupidity/obsession. While we seem to allow people obsessions, I suppose we don't allow them stupidity; but there is a correlation there somewhere. He turns out to be a sad fall guy, in both his private and his public life. I am still very close to the film and it's difficult to be completely lucid about this. Boullée and Kracklite are riddled with the same contradictions: both are aiming for perfection, and like Boullée, Kracklite is unable to realise his projects. It's important that Kracklite should have chosen someone like Boullée to celebrate in the manner he has envisaged.

Boullée did extraordinary drawings, but if the buildings don't exist, have not suffered from the effects of weather or changes in fashion, are not subject to criticism for being well or badly constructed, then a final judgment cannot be made. There is nothing finite to criticise, which is a useful position for someone who doesn't want to commit himself too much. Basing one's life on visionary drawings rather than on actual buildings could perhaps be seen as a flaw in character, a fear of laying ideas open to public inspection. This, again, might contain an autobiographical element somewhere …

I was struck by your use of the buildings in Rome, especially the fascist architecture of Piazza Venezia.

The seven buildings, the seven stages of Roman architecture I chose for the film, are all tombs—memorials to the dead, reminders to the bereaved of what went on before. Slam bang in the middle of Rome is this enormous building for which I have always had great affection and which the Romans variously call the ‘Wedding Cake’ or the ‘Typewriter.’ It's a rather vulgar building, more typical of French high beaux arts than Italian: gleaming white marble that doesn't seem to fit in at all with its surroundings. It's really extraordinarily ostentatious and grotesque when you think that during the First World War it was adapted as a memorial to the unknown soldier and widows were encouraged to take their gold wedding rings there as donations to the war effort. Behind it, shadowing it almost, we find the cradle of western civilisation: the Roman Forum.

Frankly, when I wrote the script, I never thought we would be allowed to shoot inside the ‘Typewriter,’ an emblem of architecture at its worst and most curious. But through the good offices of the architect Constantino Dardi and our art director, we managed to get in there. Then, as always happens, some remarkable associations came right out of the blue. For instance, the man who built it, Zucconi (we used his bust in lead in the film. incidentally), was a rather sad man who got into a lot of trouble for importing the marble from his home town. He was a typical local boy who ‘makes good in Rome,’ but like Kracklite, he committed suicide. I think someone was playing me along, but they said he did it by jumping off that very building.

And Piazza della Liberta? No Italian would dare shoot there after Fellini's Roma, and few would take their cameras into the tourist trap of the Pantheon.

You can put that down to the naive Englishman. I mean, can you imagine the reverse—a European director coming to London to set his scenes in Carnaby Street, Trafalgar Square and the Tower of London? It makes you shudder, doesn't it?

More so in that your previous style of filming seems to owe not a little to an almost Pasolinian concept of frontality. Characters are often flattened against the shapes that threaten constantly to devour them. Yet here, thanks to Boullée, and the rotund shape of Kracklite and his obsessions, the conceptual framework of the film is well and truly ‘rounded.’

Just as The Draughtsman's Contract was based on twelve drawings, and A Zed & Two Noughts on the eight Darwinian stages of evolution, The Belly of an Architect is based on the figure seven. The seven hills of Rome, of course, but also … I reckon there were seven clear influences that emanated out of Rome and affected the whole of western civilisation. The film is nevertheless quite seamless now: it's difficult to find the joins, but there are still seven intended correlations being brought into the narrative. That rigidity helped me to structure the script, with Kracklite's emotional and psychological deterioration acting as counterpoint to these ideas. Everything gets gradually tighter and tighter, so that when we come to ‘celebrate’ Mussolinian architecture, we do so in a montage sequence that exists almost entirely on its own. Kracklite goes to the window, and there, triumphant, is this extraordinary Italian fascist apology of a building, reprised by a second section which mobilises the same music in the Foro Italico, thus merging them. reappraising them together.

Do you feel that architecture and philosophy are particularly close to each other?

Yes, the architect needs to have knowledge and a strong awareness of everything around him. One character says as much in the film: he needs to know about literature, art and the price of bread, but on top of all that he must, like Le Corbusier, be aware of the consequences of summing all the ciphers together. Boullée was prone to making grand philosophical statements, and some of these have happily found their way into the film.

Brian Dennehy has the emotional power to sustain a character as the old Hollywood actors used to, and this is something that is perhaps missing in your other, colder films.

You are right, and it's something I have to acknowledge. My concerns reiterate a wish to bring the aesthetics of painting to cinema, and this is not a highly emotional endeavour. I am also a product of the post-Brechtian alienation of the late 60s, not of Kramer vs Kramer. I like to approach the cinema as much through the mind as through any emotional involvement, and that has been the colouring for films like The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed & Two Noughts, where all the actors were essentially signposts to ideas. This is a new departure, and I can see now how I could make it work for me. Since a lot of the ideas I dabble with concern a metaphorical use of cinema—which I still want to use as a language—I know it can be difficult for people to grasp, and this is obviously a device which could turn into a very useful tool.

Having said that, I was very surprised by the performance that Brian Dennehy gave, and I am grateful: if he helps to encourage people to engage with the other parts of the film, then that is great. That sounds manipulative, but I don't mean it to be, and would certainly like to work with Dennehy again. When he was presented with the script he didn't know me from Adam, and why should he, small-time eccentric, esoteric Englishman that I am? He identified with so many aspects of the character that he felt he simply had to take it on. With his tough guy image, many people will find his presence in an art film strange. But he comes over, I think, as a guy who forces his personality intellectually as well as physically. Certainly his love for Boullée and all the anxieties he has are intellectual as well as physical. Some of my obsessions are ludic and ephemeral, like the photocopying obsession, and he has made them work.

Why the obsession with photocopying?

I could produce a long thesis, but … a lot of my films have been concerned with reproduction. and I mean both human and artistic. The Belly of an Architect, for those who want to look, has tried to explore all the different means by which art has reproduced the human form. So we have paintings, sculpture, photographs, and ultimately the current cloning idea of reproducing art on a treadmill. But it's all in quotes, as it were. There is a photocopier in every office, like sellotape, a kind of shorthand. Most people photocopy texts, here it's works of art. It's a way of being inquisitive, just running the whole gamut of art on a photocopier.

What about new projects?

A French critic referred to me as a gay pessimist, with gay used in its older sense, and talked of Cocteau in the same breath. Perhaps I am a pessimist, but there is a certain hedonism about it as well. It is not nihilistic. It's through the pessimism that one might get filled with desire to carry on and try to comprehend things. I'm afraid the scripts that are coming up are full of death and decay as well …

The one I have just been officially commissioned to do, by Tangram in Italy—though the script is virtually finished—is called The Stairs (La Scala), a working title that seems quite useful. Again it's about baroque, showmanship and the theatrical nature of art, which I want to associate with a general consideration of trompe l'oeil in the cinema, in painting, and also in human relations: how we play games with one another. The main character is an English painter of great ability who goes to Rome to paint a vast baroque ceiling. He gets involved with a production company preparing to make a film about an old Monteverdi opera called The Marriage of Aeneas, and becomes their art director. By the time the movie is shot, you discover that a conspiracy has been going on in usual Greenaway fashion. I want to use the story as a vehicle to explore tricks of culture, tricks of the cinema, tricks of painting.

Coco Fusco (review date February 1988)

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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 painter-turned-filmmaker returned to Rome in the early 1980s—or so the publicist's story goes—he was struck by stomach cramps so severe that they persisted until the day he departed. Few would care to revive the memory of such an unpleasant holiday, but Greenaway, thanks to a particularly perverse wit, has a habit of drawing larger meaning from the discomfiting detail. Out of this particular gastrointestinal experience, then, comes Greenaway's latest film, The Belly of an Architect, an acerbic allegory about the petty intrigues of the postmodern Euro-American art world.

While I generally don't place too much faith in such biographical narratives of artistic motivation, Greenaway's pointed recollection of this incident suggests a relation to his new film that sets it apart from his previous work. Best known in this country for his recent feature films, The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), a cerebral blend of murder mystery and Baroque period drama, and A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), a black-comic inquiry into genetic mutation and coincidence, Greenaway made his directorial mark with an artful style combining analytic rigor and absurdist humor. His earlier films are extremely verbal, even literary, drawing on a satiric tradition traceable back through Lewis Carroll to Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. These films are also stunningly visual, rendering densely textured and painterly tableaux from a largely stationary and lingering camera. Still, it is the almost structuralist formality in the unfolding of the plot, rather than the lavish settings or the psychology of the characters, that drives these films. By contrast, the entire structure of The Belly of an Architect depends on the psychological and physical degeneration of its central character.

If Greenaway's new film emphasizes an almost autobiographical interest in creative subjectivity in crisis, this may not be coincidental in light of his own career. Of the eccentric independents bred by the British Film Institute and Channel Four, he is the first to move on to European auteur status with any degree of commercial success. And while this transition has clearly opened up new possibilities for production on a previously unimaginable scale, it has also drawn him into a new set of restrictions and compromises (for instance, since the film was produced with Sacis, the commercial division of Italian television, and British Screen, the national film finance corporation, there was intense pressure to make this experiment an economic and political success). As if examining his own predicament, Greenaway has set The Belly of an Architect in an unabashedly mercenary realm of the Roman art milieu, examining the deals and influences that transform cultural production into commodified spectacle. References to cash-flow abound—particularly in lingering close-ups of one-pound notes—and serve as bitter reminders of directorial dependence and constraint. In many respects, the film is a director's lament on the interdependence of art and business, the impossibility of creative autonomy and the debasement of artistic meaning in an age of spectacle and simulation.

The Belly of an Architect's elaborate plot revolves around the middle-aged, rotund Chicago architect, Stourley Kracklite, who arrives in Rome with his young wife to organize an oversized exhibition of the works of the French 18th-century visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée. Having made his reputation (and a small fortune) on such un-noteworthy projects as shopping malls and supermarkets—with the backing of American meat-packing magnates—Kracklite is viewed by his Italian colleagues as an easy mark. The Boullée exhibition is a ruse, a means by which to attract American capital to their own flagging art business and to finance other projects. In order to accomplish this extended “sting,” however, Kracklite must be distracted, and this task falls largely to Kracklite's opposite, the sleek and youthful Italian architect, Caspasian Speckler. With all the cunning of a postmodern Machiavelli, Caspasian plays on Kracklite's fears of aging and decay, encouraging his obsessive identification with Boullée and with the Roman emperor Augustus. Conveniently, Kracklite suffers unceasing abdominal pains, and fears he is being poisoned. Meanwhile, Speckler seduces Kracklite's wife, as Kracklite is drawn into perverse psychosexual games by Speckler's sister, an architectural photographer.

Kracklite is almost preposterously vulnerable, identifying immediately with every malady or scenario suggested. And as his hold on the course of events becomes increasingly tenuous, he becomes ever more preoccupied with his own mortality. This manifests itself in a growing attachment to his Xerox machine, which churns out hundreds of copies of well-sculpted abdomens which he displays in giant Minimal-style grids on his palazzo floor. Imbedded in a mire of monuments, ghosts and replicas, Kracklite deteriorates into a pitiful buffoon, unable to distinguish imitation from reality and too paranoid to communicate with anyone but the long-dead Boullée, to whom he sends diaristic postcards of a tourist's Rome.

Out of Kracklite's shift in attention from Boullées to bellies comes an endless series of visual and verbal puns that link his artistic crisis to the larger meaning of revivals, reproduction and simulation. These puns and narrative twists find their visual counterparts in a variety of imagistic repetitions and coincidences, such as the visual parallels between the Pantheon dome and Boullée's cenotaph for Newton, between Boullée's architectural sketches and Kracklite's full-scale models, between Kracklite's dome-shaped birthday cake and his own frontal protrusion.

Less subtly, Kracklite's nine-month planning period for the Boullée exhibition coincides exactly with the term of his wife's pregnancy—once again displacing the metaphor for male creativity onto the body of a woman. But as Kracklite sinks further into stagnancy, his own “hysterical” pregnancy transmutates through several psychosomatic illnesses, ending with an actual diagnosis of fatal stomach cancer. Thus, Kracklite's physical deterioration mirrors Greenaway's remorseless examination of the behind-the-scenes scheming that eviscerates the Boullée exhibition in an uncannily cancerous fashion.

Kracklite's dilemma—he's hunted by art-world hounds and haunted by his own sense of inadequacy—could very well have been a bad dream brought on by Greenaway's own case of indigestion. For both architect and film director demonstrate the pain of relinquishing total control of their oeuvre in order to have it produced. A postmodern parable, Greenaway's drama links a masculine fear of loss with a specific historical moment when art is especially susceptible to marketing strategies which exploit male genius yet render the artist impotent. But in the end, this inelegant American architect, who built his career on the support of sausage manufacturers, has access to everything the suave, smooth-toned Italians lack. The Europeans may ridicule him and even succeed in unhinging his mind, yet they remain dependent on everything he represents. In a period of European film commerce governed by the U.S. dollar, that dependency on Americans throws another crude reality into relief: Kracklite is played by Brian Dennehy, a certified box-office draw, hired to “create excitement and interest” in Greenaway's project, a European art film in search of an American mass market.

As a backdrop to this morality play, the architecture of Rome is very much a presence in Greenaway's film. The consistently centered, static and symmetrical cinematography echoes the sedate and classical mood of the architectural settings. At times the flat, almost false-fronted, appearance of the Roman architecture seems to emulate the elevations of Boullée, who, ironically, never visited Rome. Greenaway's vision of the city is focused exclusively on signs of the past—crumbling monuments, broken statues, classical facades—completely effacing any modern presence. What Greenaway creates is a tourist's fantasy, underscoring the limitations of his protagonist's communion with the imperial past, and perhaps indulging his own love of operatic illusion. Emptied of the trappings of “real life” (tourists were evacuated for the purpose), these static tableaux silently reiterate the film's central theme: that an individual's pain or vulnerability is always overshadowed by the constant replacement and regeneration of social and cultural meaning. In Rome, that architectural palimpsest, stones from the pagan Colosseum were used to build St. Peter's, and marble from the Palatine built Mussolini's Victor Emmanuel monument.

The postmodern version of this phenomenon, Greenaway suggests, is the recasting of our cultural past in the form of tourist memorabilia or pop-historicizing design. Fossilized, emptied of meaning, these bits of the past are ripped from their context and packaged as postcards, plaster pedestals and noses chipped off statues. Even the sweeping shots of fountains and emptied thoroughfares stress the distance between the idealized Rome of the classicist and the kitschified reality of the Vatican souvenir stand.

On one level, Greenaway's film is an allegory about the inevitable incorporation of cultural products into the manipulations of mass culture. This process is intensified as art institutions and art markets force cultural “products” into ever more rapid revivalist cycles. Compelled by a constant need to stimulate artistic value, exhibitions like the Boullée show fulfill a specific cultural function, supporting and sustaining their promoters and their institutions far more than they reflect their artistic creators or serve their audience. In the case of The Belly of an Architect, it is Caspasian and the art institutions who triumph in the end, devouring and displacing the martyr, Kracklite.

Yet, on another level, the film engages the viewer in a complex relationship with issues confronting contemporary culture. Stressing the futility of the search for origins or the resurrection of artistic heroes. Greenaway realistically emphasizes the necessity of coming to terms with popular culture and technological reproduceability. In the face of a Euro-American cultural machine that spews out revivals like Kracklite's photocopier, Greenaway's film articulates a kind of negotiated logic, which imparts a certain order to the debris of drafts, copies, models and fragments that lie scattered before the monumental Roman backdrops.

Suzanne Moore (review date 9 September 1988)

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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 like his films.

There is by now an almost standard set of critical responses to his work and he is respected as an arty and inventive filmmaker even by those who regard him as too clever for his own good. The argument goes something like this: his earlier work remains “interesting but indulgent,” the beautifully filmed Draughtman's Contract is regarded as a turning point in bringing together his cerebral concerns with charm and elegance and, most importantly, commercial success. The follow up, A Zed and Two Noughts, was for some critics once again marred by his ruthless formalism which forces out feeling. This school of thought prefers Belly of an Architect which is celebrated for the power of Brian Dennehy's performance—for once strong enough to flesh out Greenaway's stylistic devices, making the whole thing far more user-friendly.

Basically it seems that we can only stand difficult ideas if they are sugared by a little naturalism or at least some recognisably good acting. Yet in a cinema so barren of experimentation shouldn't we be grateful for Greenaway's intelligence? In his latest film Greenaway has the courage of his convictions and returns to the territory of A Zed and Two Noughts and The Falls, refining his themes and literally playing his ideas out. My complaint is not that his cleverness gets tiresome (which it does) or that the human element is missing (which is irrelevant), but that if he is going to depend on ideas alone he will have to get some new ones!

Accusations of pretentiousness are fairly redundant, for Greenaway understands that cinema is always about pretension—a film is never real but a game that the audience agrees to be part of. In Drowning by Numbers games, small and large, are the preoccupation of Madgett (Bernard Hill) and his strange son Smut. They devise a game for every situation, intoning the rules and regulations that turn even the smallest event into a kind of ritual. Madgett is the local coroner and becomes involved with not one, but three, women all named Cissie Colpitts, and all of whom drown their husbands. In love with each, he becomes entangled in their games as he pronounces the drownings “accidental death” rather than murder in the hope of procuring sexual favours. The plot unfolds with the precise symmetry we would expect: there are three drownings, three funerals and three failed seductions. Intertwined with these stories is the sad tale of Smut and his longing for the mysterious skipping girl.

Set in idyllic, magical English countryside, Drowning by Numbers is shot in rich autumnal colours, all gold and amber and overflowing with overripe fruit like some mad harvest festival. Greenaway is wonderful at unearthing an Englishness that is essentially pagan, full of maypoles and mayhem. Children's games reveal themselves as metaphors for fertility, loss, death and decay.

Just about every scene is reminiscent of one painting or another from Breughel to Rackham and if you are an art historian you can pat yourself on the back every time you get it right. Another favorite game for the childish or elitist amongst us.

But if games and riddles are primitive ways of ordering the world, Greenaway is also engrossed with all the ways we try to pattern what would otherwise be chaos. Classificatory systems, from numbers to alphabets to lists, are his obsession. All through the film we can count the numerals from one to a hundred which appear as the narrative unwinds.

This fascination with structure, random taxonomies, with the very form of things, is always at odds with the themes of Drowning by Numbers. The content is in fact that old staple of the art movie—sex and death. These messy instincts, that are never fully controlled, are the undertow of all the imperfect systems that try to control and define our experience. As a meditation on the impotency of hyper-rationality in the face of unconscious desire, the film has its moments.

Yet, despite his sophistication, Greenaway plays out this dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious in the most stereotypical of ways. The male characters, all non-swimmers, represent a desperately masculine rationality with their ludicrous games. They all end up done in one way or another by the enigmatic women who naturally have a great affinity to water. It is thus femininity that somehow holds the key to the deeper knowledge of sex and death. Witchlike, the women share not only the same name but an unspoken bond that gives them a special power.

Greenaway, like so many other men, seems to think that he is flattering women by showing them as mystically all powerful. This elevation of women to a transcendent womanhood, however, obscures all the far less mystical power relations between the genders. If women are innately more powerful than men, why should anything need to change? More mundanely, Greenaway's cinematic gaze remains distinctly male so Joely Richardson, the youngest and the most conventionally pretty of the women, spends a great deal of time with her clothes off.

And this is part of the difficulty. Though clearly Greenaway would like to submerge himself in the forces of love and death and the whole damn business, he also wants to contain and control them. Urbane and academic on television, I wondered what made him need to explain so carefully every twist, every plot device, every idea in his film. Surely once a movie is made, the way audiences read it is beyond the filmmaker's control?

If I was your analyst Peter, I'd tell you to loosen up. I'd also tell you to go and see a film where three women really do get away with murder—A Question of Silence.

Anthony Quinn (review date 9 September 1988)

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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 cuckolded by his young wife. The style, too, is familiar: Drowning by Numbers is another of Greenaway's formalist teases, an elaborate weave of games, conundrums, echoes, pictorial puns and famous last words. At its centre is an unholy trinity of women, each called Cissie Colpitts, and each vaguely dissatisfied with her male partner. In the film's opening minutes Cissie One (Joan Plowright) calmly drowns her philandering husband in his bath. We then follow the murderous stratagems of Cissies Two and Three (Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson) as they engineer their own deliverances from marital atrophy.

Keeping an eye on this series of drownings is the local coroner, Madgett (Bernard Hill), who falsifies each post-mortem in the hope of amorous reward. He and his thirteen-year-old son Smut (Jason Edwards) happen to be fanatical game players—Hangman's Cricket, Sheep and Tides, and Handicap Catch being among the more eccentric games—and strict adherence to their Byzantine system of rules proves, in the event, fatal for both. As well as the mental challenges the director sets for us we are also asked to admire the film's meticulous composition. Yet while one can applaud the chiaroscuro splendour and some beautifully framed tableaux (courtesy of Sacha Vierny), this is scarcely enough to carry an enterprise which so lacks any internal dynamic.

Greenaway's predilection for balance, perspective, correspondences and the like may indicate a sensibility better suited to painting (or architecture) than to the motion picture. And there is the problem: he seems to have no grasp of what makes a movie move, a shortcoming that springs not so much from the somnolent camerawork as from a singular lack of interest in people. He has no time for the messy drama of life, nor any grasp of motivation as the engine of narrative.

The general aimlessness communicates itself to the acting: the three women drift through the film looking either serene or indifferent. The rest of the cast talk to each other in lines which sound as if they were still enclosed in quotation marks. None of these characters is alive, but Greenaway appears not to notice. Aside from a smirking prurience, his attitudes remain obscure. He wants to be saluted as an auteur, but he doesn't want the attendant difficulty of transporting his starched conceits into a recognizably human sphere. Of his work hitherto only The Draughtsman's Contract his demonstrated an ability to shape remote conceptual puzzles into something vital and satisfying. Drowning by Numbers has the same self-absorption, but its painterly elegance and cleverness cannot hide the fact that it has nothing much to say.

Peter Greenaway and Ruth Perlmutter (interview date winter 1989)

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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 extraordinary ability to orchestrate multiple discourses and modes—fantasy, painting traditions, British history—and an English propensity to play with language.

Greenaway's work constitutes a major contribution to his country's resurgent film industry. Often sponsored by the British Film Institute and Channel Four BBC-TV, British filmmakers have been seeking new forms of cinematic expression—from feminist-oriented films by Mulvey/Wollen and Sally Potter to the stimulating collaborative works by Angela Carter, Neill Jordan, David Potter and Stephen Frears.

No small figure in this pantheon, Greenaway has developed a unique vocabulary—a kind of eclectic parody, which brings together a vast miscellany of modes and narrative texts. A Greenaway film is an English mongrel—part 18th century ballad, part fairy tale and myth, and very much in the tradition of the nonsense writers of the 19th century—like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. With a mordant wit, a keen sense of place—the English landscape (in the manner of English site-specific artists, Richard Long and Ian Findlay)—and a use of gruesome stories to illuminate the follies of the English, Greenaway has emerged as an original filmic artist. His continuous story-telling and hybridized techniques, which send critics scurrying for interpretation and symbol references, are not without an ideological base. They enable him to present his views that power, money and sexuality are inevitably linked and that myths and fairy tales are emblematic of social organization—the way institutions work, how art and political favors are stratified hierarchies, bought and sold, and how sexual exploitation is inextricable with class and male/female conflict.

Along with these ingredients, Greenaway is also the Linneaus of cinema. He grafts an encyclopedic obsession with structure, form, narrative organization and a passion for names, numbers, and lists onto a bizarre narrative. His black absurdist humor is matched by the painterly quality of his visual field and his allusions to whole genres of art. A painter before becoming a director, Greenaway pays homage in his films to a number of art historical traditions—with special affection for Dutch painting, English landscape painters and, in Drowning by Numbers, English book illustrators (e.g., Edward Lear, George Cruikshank, Mervin Peake) and the political caricaturists Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray. Undoubtedly, the fact that a couple of these men were also writers endears them even more to Greenaway's own Elizabethan talents. As well as being a writer and director, Greenaway often supplies the illustrations himself (as in The Draughtsman's Contract, where he drew sketches).

As with his other titles, Greenaway's latest film puns on the work's form, structure and story. People do literally drown in numbers—four, to be exact—and just as children draw by numbers, filling in the spaces as directed by numbers or trying to find a number hidden in a visual field, so the audience is made aware that the story is framed by a rigid temporal linearity governed by a sequence of numbers. The numbers one to 100 appear in succession either obviously or subtly, with 100 as the last moment of the film—and the final drowning.

As part of his mischievousness, the film is animated by a series of games, which for all their evocation of childhood and favorite English pasttimes, are actually, quite serious—indeed, dangerous. Almost all of them, from Hangman's Bluff to Winding Sheet and Tug of War, predict or precede a death. Again, as in previous films, Greenaway takes an almost perverse (postmodern) pleasure in re-accenting mythical allusions. Thus, he draws on the Agamemnon cycle, the Oedipal myth, a Grimm Brothers' fairy tale (Three Billy-Goats Gruff), and the story of Samson and Delilah—all of which flesh out his predilection for stories about the politicization of women who manipulate male potency and outwit patriarchal power.

Entranced with doubles, numbers, and names, Greenaway fashions a story of three women, all of the same name, Cissie Colpitts. Ostensibly grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter, they could also be conceived of as three different facets or three life stages of one woman. Besides, as Greenaway claims, three is a female number—for three witches, graces, muses, sirens, etc. Drowning by Numbers epitomizes Greenaway's stylistic. The formal interplay between legends as narrative pre-texts, games, wordplay, and director/audience hide and seek structures his insistent content: feminist submission turned around into power and control.

Dissatisfied with weak or lubricious husbands, each woman drowns hers and persuades the coroner, Madgett, who professes love for all of them, to record each death as accidental. Counterpoint to their shenanigans, Madgett's precocious offspring, Smut, “collects” corpses, plays innumerable games and circumcises himself with a scissors a la Samson's hirsute castration, in order to win the approval of the girl he loves. A fairy tale-like character, she is called the Skipping Girl because she preludes the film by naming 100 stars to the rhythm of her skipping rope.

Events descend to a bitter ending—Smut hangs himself when his girlfriend is killed by a hit and run driver and Madgett, check-mated by the three women, drowns in a boat numbered 100. The death-knell of the film is consonant with Greenaway's customary wry and ambiguously rueful acknowledgement of the passing of the patriarchy along with old English virtues and values, as a result of conspiring women who out-maneuver their male counterparts without remorse or punishment.

At his press conference and later at a luncheon in Cannes, where the film was presented as an official British selection and won the prize for artistic collaboration (due to the extraordinary imagery of cinematographer, Sacha Vierny and musical score of Michael Nyman), Greenaway proved to be a highly articulate advocate and explicator of his method.

[Perlmutter:] Do you start with a pre-existing idea? an external structure?

[Greenaway:] Although first conceived of while editing Draughtsman,Drowning by Numbers is an outcome of an earlier experimental piece, Vertical Features Remake, done in 1976. Just as that film was an attempt to layer together three separate ideas, so this one tells three seamless stories in one, with each story slightly overlapping the other. Actually, the character Cissy Colpitts was originally conceived of in my favorite film, The Falls, where she is the fifty-fourth of ninety-two bios.

The structure is in the strict classical dramatic organization that has persisted for more than 300 years—beginning with a prologue, followed by three acts and a coda. As in all my feature films, I am obsessionally intrigued with form and each film starts with a decision of structure. In Drowning the Skipping Girl is like a navigator guiding the spectator through the film, with all its anecdotes, intricacies of narrative and strong skeletal underpinning. Numbers provide the simplest narrative organization, and drowning is the easiest form of murder to represent as accidental death. I have always played with numbers, letters, equations, since they are not only convenient and simple but they are also absurdist nonsense. They remind us as well that although we have some free will, we remain very limited and circumscribed.

You appear to have more substantive characters than in your previous films. Is this planned?

Even though all the concerns of my earlier films are still present, I continue to enlarge on my filmic vocabulary. I am enjoying more direction of actors, but not as a bid for making commercial films. You may have noticed that in each recapitulation scene after each woman has killed her husband, I move in closer for what I call a “recrimination” shot, in order to show their feelings, the sense of accountability and sadness on their faces, and of course, their beauty. In my last two movies, I needed to use foreign actors, but in this one, the three ladies had exact command of the English language, and I like convoluted dialogue in the English sense—punning, word-play, conceit, “artificial language.”

Are men always victims of women in life?

One must not confuse the author's opinion with his creation. Yet, I am fascinated with the “conspiracy of women.” Women get a poor deal in cinema. In the last twenty years, the whole position of the female in culture is radically changing and cinema should reflect this.

Is this film, like The Belly of an Architect, an essay in male impotence?

The film's subtext is the Samson and Delilah myth, which reflects confused Biblical associations with castration and circumcision. Smut's relationship with the young girl in this respect counterpoints the grownups' relationships, and the deadly games they play.

Is Smut somehow a part of you? When he is asked, “Are you a vampire or a mathematician?” and he answers, “Neither. I'm just a clerk,” is there an autobiographical reference to your own precocity and paradoxically false modesty as a child?

Indeed, I was a lot like Smut as a child. His name refers to a number of meanings of the word “smut.” One, a dust of wind that is blown away, alludes to how much children are prey to the machinating adult world. If Smut also shows a fascination with insects and death in the film, it emanates from my own childhood when I collected insects until I realized it was a form of big game hunting in miniature and I stopped.

Can you explain the reason why at least three of the games played in the film imply death?

The games arise out of a strong English context—the English obsession with ritualized game behavior as a form echoing the relationships in life that obey certain rules and regulations—the games women and men play, the relationship between parents and child, the organization of a day, the attitude towards nature's game. There is also the game of artifice and of the self-reflexive in art. The games in the film suggest that civilized behavior requires these rituals even though they are also absurd. Besides, there is a child-like nostalgia for games we played as children. In fact, there is a nostalgic childhood moment, when a low, slow track across the beach at sunset shows the children playing at the end of the day.

Why the references to classical paintings? Is this not a dead end for cinema? A retreat to Mannerism?

Culture has enjoyed a vast mine of paintings for 400 years. Paintings like Breughel's “Children's Games” and Rubens' “Samson and Delilah” add to the baroque look of the film. I have always been jealous of the single relationship a painter has with his canvas. Cinema's structure, organization and financing makes cinema more conventional than the radicalism and innovations of painting. If I use paintings in order to innovate, I also relate them to sociological and historical factors that dictated the painting traditions. My love of Dutch painting, for instance, stems from the fact that Holland was the first equitable bourgeois society, and my use of Vermeer in A Zed and Two Noughts is partly because he coincided with the time of the microscope, the telescope and the use of the camera obscura, all of which reflect on the way cameramen look at the world.

Yes, your films are filled with a reverence for things Dutch, as well as Dutch painting. The historical context of The Draughtsman's Contract has to do with the integration of the Dutch monarchy with the English realm, and here in this film, the first scene opens with the Skipping Girl counting the stars on “Amsterdam” Road.

And there are windmills, dikes, boats everywhere. It is my homage to Holland and to East Anglia, which is just across from it. My interest in Dutch painting stems also from its valorization of the significance of landscape. In Breughel's “Fall of Icarus,” for example, there is a great deal of nature, while people are dwarfed. De Maupassant once said that everything in life can be put in a book, and I believe this can be done for film. In fact, just as photography liberated painting from realism, so TV has been good for cinema because now cinema can go on with what it can do best. For me, the best cinema is the one that recognizes its artificial nature, and with “artificial cinema,” we can go on forever making these artefacts. As to Mannerism, it was used to describe the apres-Renaissance; that is, a period of transition. If I am mannerist, it is because I prefer transitional periods, as in Boullee's architecture. We are now in a period of mannerism—seeking a new Corbusier and Picasso.

Can you talk more about your interest in names and your references to the epitaphs of famous English leaders?

For one thing, most of the names have to do with water—obviously a relationship to drowning, and an interest of mine in water as a visual metaphor since Water Wrackets (1975), an early experimental film. In fact, the characters, the Bognor Brothers are associated with a famous English resort town, and one of them is named for a most prominent watery hero, Jonah. The characters Nelly, Hardy, Bellamy and the two Van Dyke joggers are all names called up in the epitaphs, respectively, of Charles II, Lord Nelson, Pitt, and Gainsborough. Part of it comes from liking to play games with the audience. Like Borges, I drum up bogus knowledge or “apocryphal” information. Like him, I enjoy taking mocking attitudes.

What is your idea of cinema?

I am interested in a cinema of ideas. Cinema is not emotional masturbation and identification with characters. Most British and American cinema insults audiences. Cinema is rich and we must accept in it what we accept in painting and theatre. Cinema is an intellectual as well as emotional experience. It's of no use to make films unless the structure relates to the content. In American and British cinema, there is not enough attention to form. Hamlet is a play about plays. Rembrandt makes paintings about paintings.

What were some of the filmic influences that launched your career as a filmmaker?

When I was about 15, I saw Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Something clicked about the possibilities of cinema and it opened up a whole new world. I am a great admirer of Resnais' work, especially Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. I have great respect for Rohmer's The Marquis d'O, although I find his recent comedies slight. The early Bertoluccis are extraordinary. His latest, The Last Emperor, appeared flat to me. The best film I have seen this past year was Blue Velvet. I sensed an incredible intelligence behind it. It's like an American Last Tango in Paris. That final touch of the artificial bird was genius.

What's next?

Eight hours and 32 programs worth of a TV Dante, which will really be an illumination of The Inferno and a new film called The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.

Sean French (review date autumn 1989)

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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 into the city, their preparation and consumption, and would then conclude in the sewers.

In The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (Palace), Peter Greenaway has come close to fulfilling Hitchcock's ambition. In fact, he has taken it further, portraying the whole of life in terms of consumption and excretion. Greenaway himself has described the film as ‘a violent and erotic love-story set in the kitchen and dining-room of a smart restaurant.’ But this omits one crucial locale, the restaurant lavatory. In characteristically unflinching style, Greenaway views his subject in its totality. Food is consumed and excreted; some ingredients are lovingly and artfully prepared and cooked, others are allowed to rot.

If Drowning by Numbers was a film of the exterior world, shot entirely on location, the new film is a closeted, deliberately studio-bound work, shot entirely in and around one sound stage at Elstree. The film's restaurant is a domain of civilised pleasure, but it is also a Sadean refuge where force rules and everything is permitted: anything can be cooked and there is nothing that cannot be consumed in one way or another.

As in all Greenaway's films, the basic plot is straightforward. Each night the gross, violent villain, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), comes to dine at the elegant restaurant, La Hollandaise. Permanently in tow are his downtrodden wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) and different members of his gang, played by such actors as Tim Roth and Ian Drury. Albert indulges in what is virtually a monologue, brutal and scatological, in which he insults and abuses all around him. His most delicate, edgy relationship is with the chef of La Hollandaise, played by the French actor Richard Bohringer (most familiar in Britain, perhaps, from Diva).

Georgina catches the eye of another of the regular patrons, Michael (Alan Howard), who sits silently reading at his table. They begin a passionate sexual affair which takes place, until the end, entirely within the precincts of the restaurant. This affair consists of virtually nothing but a series of couplings, first in a cubicle of the ladies' lavatory, then in the kitchen and the restaurant's ample storerooms. Finally, on the verge of discovery, they flee naked into the cold-store and escape in a truck full of rotting meat.

The proceedings are dominated, presided over, by Michael Gambon, who unites the film's two sides, part gangster movie, part revenge tragedy. Spica is a spray-cartoon of a gangster. He is like a big psychopathic child, smearing one of his victims with dog shit in the opening sequence, gleefully outdoing a long line of misogynist gangsters by pushing a fork into the cheek of a girl. He's also a theatrical Jacobean villain, with the gang as his depraved courtiers and the curtained dining-room as the stage where he finally receives his deserts.

The other three actors all stand in contrast to Gambon's towering central presence. Where he is coarse, Helen Mirren is painfully vulnerable. Where he is verbose and fluent, Richard Bohringer is restrained, not least by his thick French accent. And where he is loud, Alan Howard, one of the most self-effacing of actors, is virtually silent, speaking his first words halfway through the picture, and then almost in a whisper.

It's a fascinating story, but as with the earlier films, I'm not entirely convinced by the script. Greenaway's titles are more brilliant than those of any other filmmaker. (They are also a problem for the reviewer since they are so long, and so difficult to shorten. Belly? Zed? Cook?) But the language in the films rarely lives up to them, or to the dazzling visual imagery they accompany. I wish Greenaway had found a co-writer to lend more interest to Michael Gambon's rants, more lyricism to the film's moments of love and revenge, more substance to the pivotal role of the Cook.

These shortcomings, though, are made up for by the visual style which embodies the film's true narrative. Greenaway is often seen as a director intoxicated with ideas, but his true obsession is the failure of ideas when they run up against the stubborn tyranny of the real world. His idealists are constantly thwarted: by power in The Draughtsman's Contract; by physical decay in A Zed and Two Noughts; by illness in The Belly of an Architect.

As with Greenaway's earlier films, Cook features a good deal of nudity, but the naked bodies are viewed in a strangely detached style. For a story about appetite, this is a startlingly unerotic film. Mirren and Howard lie together among the meat and poultry and their bodies come to seem like fleshy constraints, emblems of their possessors' failure to achieve transcendence.

The production design, by Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs (also responsible for Zed and Two Noughts and Drowning by Numbers), is magnificent and there are moments in their collaboration with the photographer Sacha Vierny when the film touches greatness. Each area of action, the kitchen, the dining-room and the lavatory, has a different design and colour scheme, and the actors' extravagant Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes change colour as they move between them. The different rooms also seem to represent different stages of history, an architectural mockery of human progress. The kitchen with its still lives and its fowl being dismembered is eighteenth century, the dining-room with its lush fabrics nineteenth century and the hi-tech bathroom late twentieth.

Greenaway's last three films, made with the help and boldness of his Dutch producers, are among the most original visual experiments since Powell and Pressburger's great years. With increasing resources and skill, Greenaway has taken old forms—the murder story, the thriller—dismantled them and put them back together to make something entirely new. It's a perilous project and filmgoers must keep their fingers crossed. British visionaries have a way of going terribly wrong, witness the course of Nicolas Roeg's career. But Greenaway is now beyond question the most exciting intelligence at work in our cinema.

Suzanne Moore (review date 20 October 1989)

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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 being the operative word.

This is the subject matter of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Although, as we have come to expect from this idiosyncratic filmmaker, the subject is also inevitably the process of making a film itself. Thus The Cook, etc comes to us as a gift, wrapped up in expensive paper that says Art. It presents itself as a handmade chocolate in a cinema full of popcorn. It shouldn't be scoffed down, consumed in the great flow of junk that we fill our faces with. No, a Greenaway film is to be savoured by those who instinctively know when something is good. If you don't like the taste—well it is an acquired taste after all—perhaps it's because your palate is not suitably educated. To put it bluntly, maybe you are a bit thick. Of course no one actually says this, just like no one admits to preferring the taste of popcorn to some over rich chocolate.

It is very hard to resist the temptation when Greenaway, the master chef himself, is given so much space to explain his recipes to us. His ideas are intriguing, his dedication and attention to detail amazing, his intentions thoroughly honourable. Eventually, though, there are the works themselves, there to be chewed upon, swallowed or spat out. In a cinema starved of ideas and experiment, a Greenaway film is always a critical event—literally something to get your teeth into—and The Cook, etc has already been widely acclaimed.

The story is a surprisingly simple one. The Thief, Albert Spica, played by Michael Gambon, is a monster of a man: an extortionist who thinks nothing of torturing children, beating his wife and feeding shit to those who cross him. He is evil incarnate: a vicious yob with money, an uncouth nouveau riche who thinks he can buy a piece of culture by eating in a posh restaurant. So he dines nightly in La Hollandaise, which he is fact owns, accompanied by his henchmen and his wife (Helen Mirren) who has been numbed by years of battering into frozen passivity. There she starts an affair with Michael (Alan Howard), a bookish man who is the complete opposite of her husband in every way. Their secret is guarded by The Cook (Richard Bohringer), who barely hides his contempt for Spica and what he represents.

The plot, actually a minor detail in the whole enterprise, provides little more than a vehicle on which Greenaway's oft-repeated themes can glide through the film. The Cook, etc is less rigidly structured than his previous films such as Drowning by Numbers and A Zed and Two Noughts, in which he made use of random taxonomies from alphabets, to numbers, to lists. And this relative simplicity works better, giving the film a fluidity sometimes lacking in his previous work. This fluidity is also traced by bravura camerawork, long shots that slowly traverse the set taking us from the kitchen into the sumptuous dining room. Each part of the set is colour-coded, so that as The Wife leaves the restaurant and goes into the loos her red dress becomes white. It's a simple and brilliant device that is more successful than many of Greenaway's familiar visual puns.

As usual, each frame is stuffed with visual information and art-historical references. Dying fruit and meat is arranged into beautiful still lives to remind us of what? The old stuff about death and decay, I guess. This being Greenaway, though, one can't help feeling that even the maggots crawling over the rotting flesh have been organised to move in aesthetically pleasing patterns over the corpses. The overall feel is astonishing but stifling, this religious arrangement of everything, this fussiness. The sense of controlled artifice, managed violence, cleverly patterned chaos, strikes me as extraordinarily anal. Which may well be the point.

The nature of chaos and the chaos of nature is after all one of Greenaway's major preoccupations. In The Cook, etc he cooks this raw material up into culture. The urgent sticky undertow of nature is always threatening to disrupt the cultural, in spite of our elaborate system of rituals and taboos. Albert Spica is a monster because he breaks those taboos. He pisses on his victims. He tells toilet jokes while eating. He is disgusting, greedy and excessive.

Both his wife's lover and The Cook, on the other hand, are gentlemen of taste, of refinement. They know about value, while Spica only knows about price. Here culture, in the general sense of the basic human need to order the world into liveable categories, fuses into Culture. Greenaway's good guys instinctively know. They are cultured in the Leavisite sense of the word: they recognise the best when they see it.

As political allegory The Cook, etc is both a vicious and a visceral indictment of the greed and conspicuous consumption of contemporary Britain. The only hope in the film, if it is hope, is a reassertion of fairly traditional and conservative values about particular kinds of art and knowledge. While Greenaway has denied that this is a film about class, Spica's vileness is inextricably linked to his lack of culture. He embodies the nightmare of the chattering classes—someone who doesn't instinctively know.

Despite Greenaway's emphasis on the body, on mortality, the reinsertion of the corporeal into metaphysical discourse, somehow the split between the mind and the body is always maintained because of his ruthless insistence on form. The contents of the body—the blood, the guts, the shit and the piss—may be his content too. Yet it is forever subjugated to the style of the film, to its internal logic. The Cook, etc is as brilliantly self-enclosed as all his films, yet that leads to a kind of containment. Nothing is allowed to leak out. Greenaway sews up every possible significance, every possible meaning in advance, so you sit there lulled by the cleverness, the rightness of it all.

Once again the infantile, the shit-eating, all-devouring, cannibalistic impulses get forgotten as we discuss the Gaultier costumes or the wonderful sets. If you are what you eat you can get a whole load of art down your gob with this one. But, as to be expected, the Arty wins out over the Farty—after all, this is body horror for people who don't watch horror films. Another Greenaway exercise in mind over matter.

Alan Jenkins (review date 3 November 1989)

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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, opens with the despicable Spica, a gangster of sorts, forcing someone literally to eat shit; and for the rest of the film that is what, metaphorically, he does to one and all. We are what we eat, we turn everything we eat to shit, Spica (and by implication his late-capitalist yob-code of nouveau-riche vulgarity and conspicuous consumption, seasoned here with a little sadistic violence and some megalomaniac touches) turns everything to shit anyway. Not strikingly original ideas, but, given a vision sufficiently focused or a script sufficiently compelling, capable, you'd think, of putting a few off their next confit de canard. Greenaway delivers the first; but sabotages his film with his arrogant disregard of the second.

The story, such as it is, is one of impetuous passion and revenge. Spica's brutalized wife (a flinching, bruised but erotically undiminished Helen Mirren) finds fulfilment in the arms of a refined and gentle bookseller (Alan Howard), in a variety of darkish kitchen-corners of the vast, vaguely futuristic and sumptuous restaurant that Spica owns, and that provides the setting for his ludicrous demonstrations of omnipotence (though, it is predictably hinted, he is in fact impotent). The lover pays a grim price for their sexual happiness, but the sympathetic and much put-upon cook and the wife exact an even more gruesome revenge from the thief. All this matters hardly at all; what matters is the sequence of tableaux vivants and natures mortes that substitutes for the “action.” These owe everything—as the name of the restaurant, Le Hollandais, reminds us, along with the huge genre-painting that dominates the scene—to Dutch seventeenth-century precedents. Le Hollandais is decorated in the colours of meat, blood and death; its clientele's Gaultier-designed garb changes hue as the wearers move between kitchen, dining-room and lavatory; and the behaviour of the proprietor runs to excesses undreamt of even by the late Peter Langan. It is, in short, a rum place; the air of irreality deepens with every diner we watch, aghast, sitting down to eat there. It works better as metaphor (the world as charnel-house; in the midst of life we are in death), but carnal appetite and decay are equally distanced by the stylized beauty of the set-pieces.

Much has been made—with little discouragement from the writer-director—of this film's “Jacobean” lineage. Spica—a performance of outrageous theatricality and sublime unconvincingness from Michael Gambon—has his roots, certainly, in a line of frightening caricatures from Tamburlaine to Ubu Roi; he has one or two fiendish moments (the bookseller is suffocated with pages from his favourite book, Carlyle's French Revolution—social change rammed down his throat as he is made to eat his words) but more often treads a line between buffoonery and bathos. He isn't frightening, because we don't believe in his insane possessiveness, his ability to consume the world with evil; we don't believe in these things because he is given nothing to say that would make us believe them. Greenaway's other characters are, in fact, mere burping clothes-horses. Lurching eerily from a thinly dramatized cry of disgust and rage (though whether a vegetarian's, a moralist's or a snob's is never as clear as you'd wish) to a self-cherishing banquet for the eyes, stuffed with visual rhymes, puns and teases, the film seems finally as opulent, wasteful, cruel and empty as the ethos it confusedly strives to stigmatize.

Leonard Quart (review date 1990)

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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, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, his career has been transformed, and the avant-garde director has, for the moment, become part of the mainstream.

What accounts for the success of The Cook … is that, on its surface, the film is a shocking work. It contains a great many sensational elements, opening with a man being smeared with shit and urinated on by a gang of thugs, and moving on to explicit sex and nudity, sadistic beatings and mutilation, murder, and, finally, gourmet cannibalism. All of these acts and images led it to receive an X rating from the MPAA, and, after an appeal failed, to be released by its distributors unrated. The sensationalism led to some walkouts, but Greenaway's cool, detached style estheticized most of the film's violence and titillated and excited rather than alienated a large portion of its audience.

Of course, there is more to The Cook … than the violence that makes it a seductive work. Greenaway eschews realism and emotional identification with the characters for an elegant, self-reflexive style which treats each scene like a carefully stylized, theatrical tableau. In fact, the film opens with the parting of curtains into a vast sound stage, which turns out to be the parking lot of the restaurant in the film—a virtual purgatory, shot in a metallic, ultramarine blue, enveloped in smoke, and filled with barking, feral dogs. It's a striking composition and one that sets the rich visual tone of the film.

The narrative of the parable, a relatively simple one, begins here. A brutal criminal and aspiring gourmet, Albert Spica (Michael Gambon), his henchmen, and his restrained, sensual forty-year-old wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), nightly visit an opulent French restaurant, Le Hollandais, which is owned by a perfectionist cook (Richard Bohringer). One night Georgina makes eye contact with a modest, pale bookseller, Michael (Alan Howard), who sits quietly reading at a nearby table. They are both sexually aroused, and wordlessly have sex with each other in the restaurant's lavatory. On the evenings that follow, almost all of which are separated and introduced by a restaurant menu card, Georgina and Michael, aided by the cook, have sex between courses in a variety of restaurant pantries. Lust quickly develops into love, but the thief eventually discovers his wife's secret affair, and exacts murderous revenge on the lover.

None of the characters have any internality: they are actors in a choreographed dance that Greenaway has meticulously designed. The central figure, Albert, is a pretentious, Cockney brute, who ceaselessly spews venom at everybody and everything around him. Albert is reduced to a single note, but Gambon's verbal energy and imposing physical presence make him livelier than anyone else in the film. Albert is an irrational, destructive force—belching and spitting out food, insulting and physically abusing the masochistic Georgina, causing havoc among the restaurant patrons and staff, and obsessively and obscenely talking about rear ends, toilet seats, excrement, and dirt. For him, sex is dirty, books are meaningless, and the only realities are power and money.

The other characters exist in Albert's shadow, though they are clearly the people Greenaway identifies with. The cook represents Greenaway's artist figure who, in works like The Draughtsman's Contract and The Belly of an Architect (1987), are defeated and destroyed by the film's conclusion. In The Cook … the wryly observant and quietly courageous cook survives, but remains a cipher who never quite comes alive. The sexual coupling of the two lovers evokes a great deal of sensuous dignity and decorous eroticism, which is further heightened by the audience's fear that they will be discovered by Albert as he fumes and snorts noisily through the restaurant's kitchen. The couple's dialog, however, is banal and stilted, and Georgina's growing love for Michael, sorrow over his death, and controlled rage towards Albert are never emotionally convincing. Michael's character is enigmatic—he speaks little, conveying only a self-disparaging sense of humor, and his willingness to risk his life by engaging in the relationship with Georgina remains unexplained.

Of course, since Greenaway's film is a fable with political implications, it need not provide detailed motivations for its characters. But viewed as a political parable, and Greenaway states that The Cook … is suffused with his “anger and passion about the terrifying pejoratives done to the political life in Great Britain by this wretched Mrs. Thatcher,” the film is heavy-handed, and, paradoxically, lacking clarity.

In political terms, Albert is supposed to embody one of Thatcher's more terrifying success stories. He's an arriviste and philistine who mispronounces the entrees on the menu, and is relentlessly and amorally attuned to the world of avarice and crass materialism that is Thatcher's legacy. Albert also offers to provide the Thatcher government's answer to crime—a couple of “short, sharp, shocks”—to somebody whose behavior has displeased him. Greenaway has him even murder Michael by stuffing down his throat the book he was reading on the French Revolution.

All of this is much too literal and facile. Viewing gross, working class Albert as a representative of the excesses of the Thatcher ethos lets the audience off the hook by allowing it to feel superior to this barbarian and psychopath. Thatcherism is clearly a more complex and subtle phenomenon than an ethos that gives license to uncontrolled and rapacious behavior on the part of the new rich. And the characters that Greenaway is sympathetic to—Richard, Michael, and Georgina—are also indelibly linked to the restaurant which is a shrine to avid consumerism (Michael and Georgina are even served an elegant meal from the restaurant when they are hiding out from Albert's wrath)—further blurring the political impact of the film. What is more politically suggestive is the film's depiction of the jaded, upper class customers' utter indifference to Albert's tumult and disruption at the restaurant—Greenaway possibly signifying the danger of the upper class' passive collusion with Thatcher's most callous policies.

The Cook … clearly means to have political and social implications, but its real distinction lies in its form. Trained as a painter, Greenaway has a wonderful eye and his films are always imaginatively composed—particularly striking in their use of decor and color. The Cook … if anything, is richer in texture than his other films. Taking his lead from the Golden Age of Dutch painting—“For me film has a modern way of painting pictures”—the restaurant's dining room is filled with luxuriant and ordered displays of food that remind one of Dutch still lives. The dining room is also dominated by a gigantic reproduction of Frans Hals's 1614 painting The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia of Haarlem, whose clothing style, a study in red and black, is imitated by Albert and his hoods as if they're attending a masquerade party. The immense restaurant kitchen is inhabited by a Felliniesque group of workers, including a blond boy soprano, whose haunting voice penetrates the room, and a flabby, shirtless cook with a pony tail. They sweat in the kitchen heat while cooking in copper pots and pans and stirring vast tureens—the scene an almost surreal variation on Dutch genre paintings.

The painterly effects are furthered by color coding the various rooms: the threatening dining room is blood-red; the bathroom where Michael and Georgina first make love is a dazzling white on white; the kitchen is dark green; the hospital, where one of Albert's victims is taken, is egg yellow with mysterious shadows looming along the walls; and the book depository where the lovers hide out is a golden Eden with a half moon over a city skyline as painted backdrop. As Georgina moves from room to room, the color of her imaginative and seductive costumes is transformed to match the room's decor, the camera tracking the characters' almost processional-like movements to Michael Nyman's throbbing, hypnotic score.

It's all extremely lavish and sensual—even the shot of maggots devouring rotten meat (decay being a repeated motif in Greenaway's work). For a director who supposedly inveighs against consumerism and greed, he obviously takes a great deal of pleasure in both the munificent and the corrupt. Albert may be vile, but he is given the best lines and one feels that the film is less interested in what he symbolizes socially and politically than in the theatricality of his vitriol. In fact, Greenaway's primary purpose in The Cook … seems to be to make a film which is an exercise in style—albeit, a virtuoso one. Greenaway may think that “art should take on issues,” confront and outrage people. His work, however, never gets beyond its coolly exhilarating surfaces to truly disturb a viewer's moral vision. It's the calibrated surfaces of The Cook … not its substance, that either irritates or excites its audience. Greenaway has made a film that gives a great deal of esthetic pleasure while being essentially empty at its core.

Stuart Klawans (review date 7 May 1990)

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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 own good, of course. Fat, sputtering, violent, vain, Albert is the bogeyman with whom Peter Greenaway tries to frighten the audience in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. As portrayed by Michael Gambon, Albert is the businessman as Mafioso, the arts patron as self-indulgent boor, the husband as brutal, moralizing proprietor. He's pure evil. He is also the film's only source of vitality.

Throughout such works as The Draughtsman's Contract,The Falls and Vertical Features Remake, Peter Greenaway has combined a rather literary wit with a studious, almost didactic cinematic style. In The Cook, you notice his artifice at once, as two uniformed figures—ushers, perhaps—part a curtain to reveal the opening tableau. The camera moves from a nocturnal blue parking lot to the cavernous green kitchen of Le Hollandais, then to its plush red dining room, then the stark white toilet. As Georgina (Helen Mirren) passes from one color-coded setting to another, her costume miraculously changes to suit the decor. Time is similarly turned into a pattern. The Cook takes place over the course of a week, with each day's passing (save one) marked by a close-up of the restaurant's menu.

Though the framework is elaborate, the events taking place within it are fairly simple. Albert feeds and rants and bullies. Meanwhile, Georgina catches the eye of Michael (Alan Howard), a man who sits quietly at a nearby table. You know he's good because his table is piled with books. Without a word, Georgina and Michael meet in the toilet, grope, get interrupted by Albert (but not discovered, not yet). Soon, with the aid of the Cook (Richard Bohringer), Georgina is having an affair with Michael, using the only area of freedom available to her: a succession of pantries, which she visits on the pretext of going to the toilet.

The film's structure is so impressive, Albert's grossness so transfixing, the photography by Sacha Vierny so expert, that I watched at least four menus' worth of this plot with considerable pleasure. If nothing else, The Cook held my attention, which is more than I can say for almost any other movie released in the past few months. And if Greenaway had wanted to do no more than that, I would gladly recommend The Cook as a jeu d'esprit. But how playful is it, really, and on whom is the wit being exercised? As the story proceeds, taking on the character of a Jacobean revenge play, those questions become troubling.

You can see the problem most clearly when Greenaway has to shoot an apparently simple scene: a conversation between Georgina and the Cook. Suddenly, he has no pattern to fill out, no symbols to insert into the decor, no lurid events to stage, no verbal cues for his camera. His only task is to create a moment of human contact—and he falls on his face. It's painful to see how he cuts meaninglessly among close, medium and long shots, trying desperately to keep the scene going. He simply doesn't know what to do with the camera, any more than he knows how to direct the actors. They're both excellent performers, who might have done well enough if left to their own devices. But you can see all too plainly how Greenaway blocked their gestures, fitting them to the paragraphs of godawful dialogue that have to be mouthed.

At this point, a Greenaway fan might object that what I call “human contact”—no doubt a hopelessly bourgeois concept—has nothing to do with the film. If Greenaway can't put a couple of fine actors into a two-shot and come away with a watchable scene, well, that just proves he's more ideologically advanced than Jean Renoir. Maybe so. But let's turn now to the biggest piece of symbolism in The Cook, the backdrop against which Albert plays out his enormities: the principal decoration of Le Hollandais, an enormous reproduction of Frans Hals's Banquet of the Officers of the Saint George Guard Company.

It's a very interesting painting. A dozen citizen-soldiers sit around a lavishly appointed table, midway through the sort of self-congratulatory feast that used to last for a week. These burghers were in some sense the prototype of the modern middle class; their gluttony—over a period corresponding to the action in Greenaway's film—reinforces the identification between Albert and the figures in the painting. When first seen, he even wears a sash like the guardsmen's. His face, and those of his gang, resemble the figures' faces.

And yet the men Hals painted were not gangsters. In 1616, when the painting was made, they had indeed grown fat, lazy and middle-aged. But these men had risked their lives to free Holland from the double yoke of the Hapsburg Empire and the Spanish monarchy. They were patriots and sellouts, grasping businessmen and pioneers of civil liberty. As much as being forerunners of the modern bourgeoisie, they were throwbacks to the free guildsmen of medieval republics. They contributed mightily to the development of the slave trade and also of international law. In his group portrait of their militia company, Hals, who most likely had been born in the same year as the Dutch Republic, created something unprecedented. In effect, he caught the guards off-guard, rendering each man's character almost as if in a snapshot, through fleeting, revelatory gestures. Moreover, though the figures were made individually—much as a film is shot out of sequence—Hals had the novel inspiration of grouping them casually around the table, so that it looks and even feels as if they were painted together.

I have carried on at such length about the painting only because I had to. It looms over The Cook as an emblem and also an implicit rebuke. Greenaway utterly lacks the traits that were strongest in Frans Hals—an interest in character and a talent for informality. Nor does Greenaway care about the contradictions of the men Hals depicted, their substance as historical actors. All he wants is an image—a high-toned, arty image at that—with which to insult an upwardly mobile villain whose faults include an inability to pronounce the words on a French menu.

By the time Greenaway drags in a few mentions of the French Revolution, just for the sake of mentioning it, those viewers who can watch and think simultaneously might have fallen into some distress. The Cook is a film of ideas by a man who hasn't really got any, a tale of passions by someone who apparently has never felt them. You might try it anyway, just for the wretched excess of Michael Gambon's performance and the fun of seeing Helen Mirren's dress change colors; but don't expect a work of art.

John Simon (review date 14 May 1990)

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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 or Crime & Punishment. But, beloved of law firms and typographers, the ampersand has become chic & is here to stay.

But back to Peter Greenaway, a British painter, novelist, and filmmaker. His first full-length effort, The Draftsman's Contract (1982), was so pretentious, hollow, and odious that it set my teeth on edge; I had the urge to throw something equally rotten back at the screen. It was an attempt at a bawdy, witty, nasty Restoration comedy bolstered with the savagery of Jacobean revenge tragedy. But the comedy was not witty enough, the tragedy was gratuitously grafted on, and the whole thing made no sense. What could be more flavorous than an olla podrida of smuttiness, obscurantism, and self-congratulation?

As a result, I stayed away from Greenaway's next offerings: A Zed and Two Naughts,The Belly of an Architect,Drowning by Numbers, whose very titles inspired diffidence. But the glowing hullabaloo that greeted CTW&L demanded investigation. In the New York Times, where the two senior critics prudently abstained and let young #3, Caryn James, pluck this chestnut out of the fire, we could read that this “profound” film was, among other things, “a work so intelligent and powerful that it evokes our best emotions and least civil impulses.” Where, I wondered, did this evocation take place: on the screen or in the auditorium? On film, it takes very little profundity to display noble feelings and bestial impulses. To evoke them in the audience—rather more interesting—would presumably mean causing you to make impassioned love to your neighbor on the left while urinating on the person sitting to your right.

It is with the latter that the film begins. In a garishly lit parking lot, the Thief (Michael Gambon), actually a major gangster, and his henchmen torture an unidentified man: they strip him, smear excrement on him, pee on him, and might go further if the Wife, impassively smoking in the car, did not advise the Thief to desist. Albert Spica, the Thief, then vents his fury on Georgina, the Wife, as they enter his fancy restaurant. In the parking lot, savage curs roam about, getting in the pigs' heads and maggot-infested fish that fill garbage trucks seemingly uneager to cart them away.

One enters the restaurant, Le Hollandais, so named after a huge replica of Frans Hals's Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia that hangs on one of its walls, through the kitchen. This kitchen has a staff ranging from half-naked potbellied food handlers to a kitchen boy with punk yellow hair and an epicene persona, constantly singing hymns in a shrill voice. The saturnine Cook is played by Richard Bohringer, a posturing French actor with an impenetrable accent in English. Bohringer starred in Diva, Jean-Jacques Beineix's obnoxious and nonsensical film, a manifest influence on CTW&L, and the luridly green kitchen is his Plutonian domain.

From this we pass to the crimson dining room, where the Thief and his men, dolled up in quasi-Halsian regalia clashing with their oafish talk and foul behavior, seem to be regulars—after all, the Thief owns the place. The Wife, in this swinishly illogical film, is especially illogical: for years she has tolerated the Thief's shoving, or making her shove, bottles, wooden spoons, etc. up her crotch by way of sex, and his beatings, buffetings, and cruel beratings by way of connubial bliss. Four times she has escaped, and allowed herself to be found and taken back. True, this is not realistic filmmaking, but some sort of stylized explanation, if I may put it so, wouldn't hurt.

The Thief, Albert Spica (is he so named that people addressing him should seem to be saying “Mr. Speaker,” creating instant parliamentary satire?), roughs up everyone: henchmen, kitchen staff, waitresses, customers. He pulls off tablecloths with full dishes on them, pummels the diners, sometimes emptying a soup tureen on their heads before, literally, kicking them out. Just for fun, mind you, or to vent his anger at Georgina on them. The way the clientele on and off screen puts up with this suggests that Greenaway's view of people as sadomasochists may be justified.

Meanwhile, the Wife is making goo-goo eyes at a rather seedy youngish man in a rust-brown suit, who dines regularly at the restaurant in the company of two or three hefty tomes (some of them old and rare-looking), one of which he reads as he eats. The Thief likes to come up and toss some of these books on the floor, whereat the reader, who doesn't speak till midway into the film, smiles. Does the Thief do this because he realizes that Georgina's ever more frequent visits to the ladies' room allow her to make love in one of the stalls to Michael, as the bookish fellow is called? Not a bit; Albert is too thick to catch on to the obvious—maybe because the Cook's weird specialties are only too likely to induce diarrhea.

Finally, though, Albert does follow Georgina into the ladies' lieu, but in lieu of catching on, merely makes himself gratuitously loathsome. The lovers must seek another hideaway, and the Cook first shelters them in the larder, where they have sex amid a legion of unplucked pheasants, literally making it in the feathers. When the Thief comes ferreting into the kitchen, the Cook hides the lovers in the cold-storage room, where love keeps them warm until he arranges their escape in a rotting-food truck, where their love is further fertilized by decomposing pigs' heads and fish innards. They find eventual refuge in the book depository, where Michael is cataloguing some half-million to a million volumes (I'm bad at guessing numbers), and where the hymn-squealing albino punker-castrato-hermaphrodite brings them meals from the Cook.

At this point, the film goes a bit queer. So uncouth, in fact, that I leave it to you to seek it out if your taste runs to tastelessness. I'll pass on to the music, costumes, sex, and mise-en-scène. The music is by Michael Nyman, whose career is as bizarre as if it had been composed, or at least orchestrated, by Peter Greenaway. His score here is a queasy blend of baroque and rock, outlandish and insinuating, the aural equivalent of the Cook's cuisine, with perhaps the odd pig's head thrown in, to make sure it goes on your nerves, its ultimate intended destination.

The costumes are by one of the enfants terribles of haute couture, Jean Paul Gaultier. (The other two, Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana, are undoubtedly eating each other's heart out.) Their thrust is, besides jabots for the gangsters, fancy outfits and provocative undies for Georgina. These are an amalgam of cancan dancers' costumes out of Toulouse-Lautrec, whores' gear out of Genet's The Balcony, and saddles by Hermès—with, by the bye, coiffures to match. Though Helen Mirren (Georgina) is seldom wholly naked—at her age, it might not be seemly—her breasts and genitalia are dutifully exposed. As for Alan Howard (Michael), he's frequently in the buff to huff and puff with Miss Mirren in simulated sex that is less erotic than ornamental, presumably to better fit the décor.

That décor, surely, is what the film is about. Since I could hardly match such eloquence, let the press kit do the cataloguing: “1) the lavish restaurant dining room, where most of the verbal and physical abuse occurs, is blood-red, symbolizing danger; 2) the kitchen, where the lovers secretly meet, is jungle-green, suggesting safety; 3) the parking lot, where the lovers flee, is a cold ultramarine, connoting the netherworld; 4) the lovers' hideaway [book depository] is gold, to represent the golden age of learning and implying an Eden of reborn innocents; 5) a children's hospital ward, which is the yellow of egg yolk and spring [?]; and 6) the lavatories, where the lovers begin their affair, is [sic] the shadowless incandescent white of heaven.”

Accordingly, when Georgina moves from one space to another, her dress changes from red (dining room) to white (lavatory) to green (kitchen). I have always considered the interior decorator one of the more sinister influences on modern life, particularly when, like Peter Greenaway, he sets himself up as a social-metaphysical moviemaker. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover is part post-modern vomitorium, part pseudo-Buñuelian existential parable, and altogether undesirable. Kathy Acker, the expatriate American punker-novelist, has characterized Greenaway: “If his films are—and are about—any one thing, it is the connection between perception, art, philosophy, mythologies, sexuality, and the political.” That sure is some “any one thing.”

Richard Alleva (review date 1 June 1990)

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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 features, Greenaway goes through the motions of doing what most other directors do: the making of movies that tell stories that have characters, settings, emotions, and that seem to take place somewhere on our planet, some time in our history.

Seem to, but don't. Greenaway's stories not only begin in his imagination, they remain there even after being filmed. They are embryos that grow to monstrous life without ever being born. Greenaway's characters dance attendance only upon their creator's whims. Alas, poor characters. If there were a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Fictional People, I would immediately send it to the rescue of the protagonists of The Draughtsman's Contract and Greenaway's latest, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. This director likes to conjure images of suffering flesh, and so his characters are called into existence in order to be tortured. It's the whimsy in Greenaway's work that repels me, not the ferocity. Or, to be precise, it's the whimsy that makes the ferocity sickening.

Sam Peckinpah and Luis Buñuel were other filmmakers with insatiable appetites for violence. But, in their best work, cruelty reared its head only when a certain narrative logic bid it rise. One seldom felt, while watching a good Buñuel or Peckinpah film, that the plot was being jerked about in order to nail the characters. Not so with Greenaway's new work. Here, cruelty rules the dramatist. But, curiously enough, self-indulgent cruelty in art disturbs far less than cruelty serving as an indispensable element in an ordered whole. Buñuel's Los Olvidados kept me from sleep, and my father complained that Straw Dogs had the same effect on him. I winced at some of the abominations in Cook but walked out of the theater without dread. Greenaway's cruelties are too arbitrary and too arty to haunt.

I can hear the arguments for the defense already: (1) Since this film is an allegory of either freebooting capitalism or totalitarian oppression, the dramatist must be forceful in his presentation of political tyranny; (2) Greenaway does no worse than Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. Remember Titus Andronicus “with Lavinia ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out”? And how about those “vile jellies” in King Lear?

It's easy to see why Cook might be taken as political allegory if you were to simply summarize its plot: a hoodlum and his gang go to a French restaurant (of which the hoodlum is the chief financial support) and there behave, over the course of several visits, in a loathsome manner. They pour their loot onto tables, discuss deals, chivy the cook and staff, insult and batter the guests, regurgitate their food in public. Since no one calls the cops, the viewer must assume that the thief himself is in charge of society. He is Brute Rule incarnate, Big Bully if not Big Brother, and the well-dressed patrons must represent the affluent but passive sector of society (bourgeoisie? socialist elite?) that puts up with tyranny. The thief's wife, treated by him more as moll than mate but possessing a certain innate refinement (and played with provocative, tender-tough suppleness by Helen Mirren), notices a man eating and reading in a corner of the dining room. The man (a bookseller) and the wife begin an affair and carry it on in various nooks and crannies of the large restaurant. After the inevitable discovery is made, the lover is sadistically killed: stuffed with, and smothered by his own books. The wife, aided by the cook and a veritable parade of all the people injured and insulted by the thief, traps her husband in the dining room, and serves him the body of her lover—which has been cooked by the chef at the wife's request. (No, as Anna Russell says about Wagner's operas, I am not making any of this up!) Gun in hand, she forces him to dig in, and gagging and vomiting, he does. She shoots him dead. “Cannibal!” she jeers at the fallen villain. Queasy laugh from audience. The End.

No one expects an allegory to operate as a realistic drama does. But even an allegory, perhaps especially an allegory, must have a surface logic if we are to follow the story closely enough to grasp the underlying meaning. Through about one-third of its running time, Cook holds the audience with its cat-and-mouse melodrama of brutal husband and furtive adulterers. Dextrous filmmaking helps: as the camera pans, left to right, from the blue brutality of the restaurant's courtyard (where the thief beats the victims) through the underwater green of the kitchen (where the lovers stop time with their passion) to the splashy red vulgarity of the dining room (where gorging, disgorging, anger, and lewdness dominate), we know we are in the hands of a master visualizer.

But soon we are trying to wriggle out of those hands, for who wants to be in the grip of someone who can see and not think? who can compose a picture but not care about his own characters?

If the thief is Head Barbarian, why don't the restaurant patrons recognize him? Having destroyed the bookseller, the thief is warned by a henchman that he may get into trouble for the murder. In trouble with whom? With the police? What police? With rival gangsters? What rivals? Just how powerful is this thief, and in what sort of society does he live? Greenaway can't suggest an answer because his film has no vision of the dynamics of a society, something that all good allegories, from The Republic to The Castle to Lord of the Flies, have.

Perhaps Cook is not an allegory but a piece of Jacobean cinema, an example of cruelty as catharsis that shouldn't be held to strict standards of plotting and characterization? Perhaps. But we venerate the author of King Lear for widening and deepening our perception of what life can be at its worst. (My eyes fall upon the news photo of a mother running through the streets of Lebanon after learning that all three of her children have been killed by a terrorist bomb.) We despise the author of Titus Andronicus for coasting on cruelty to get easy shudders from the groundlings. Shakespeare started as a purveyor of cheap thrills but grew into a conveyer of profound shudders. Greenaway, as a filmmaker, is much more sophisticated at this stage of his career than Shakespeare was as a versemaker while writing Titus Andronicus. But Greenaway's mind and sensibility operate at the level of Grand Guignol. Are we to praise him for making the art house groundlings giggle?

No matter what his admirers claim for him, Greenaway is probably interested in neither allegory nor cruel catharsis. He is a postmodernist par excellence. He imagines and stages the various segments of his story for the maximum frisson each part will produce without regard as to how the parts will interlock, reflect on each other, and cohere to create unity, substance, beauty. He wants to show the eating of food alongside the vomiting of it. And so he does. When the thief raids a ladies' room in search of his wife and slams open the stalls, Greenaway gets a chance to show an old woman sitting on a toilet. And so he does. Because special effects departments are wizardly these days, Greenaway can create the illusion of the bookseller's chest cracked open by torturers and stuffed with paper. And so Greenaway does and does and does. He does it all to his characters and, dear reader and viewer, he does it all to you. Happy movie going.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 4 June 1990)

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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.

Because he has established himself as an intelligence and as a visual connoisseur, we look in his films for intelligent reason to support their visual being. This time, with Sacha Vierny again as his cinematographer, we can be sure that our eyes will feast, and the assurance is double because the setting is Rome. Greenaway and Vierny find ways to see the city that simultaneously remind us of what we know yet present it in new perspectives, new baths of light. A series of color stills from this film would be a poor present to give someone who is going to Rome for the first time because he or she is unlikely to see it in this innovative way.

But what, I must ask as I did about The Cook, is it all for? The later film labors an obvious allegory about appetites and cruelties. I can't say that this earlier one is equally obvious, it's just vacant. Food, as the title suggests, once again is important: feastings of various kinds recur. Sexual appetite, too, is again present. But wherefore?

The architect is an American in his fifties. (The character's name is Stourley—pronounced Stoorly—Kracklite. Not exactly a name to conjure with.) He comes to Rome with his young wife to mount an exhibition of the work of Etienne-Louis Boullée, the eighteenth-century French architect who is his idol. Boullée's abstract, geometrical clarity is supposed to have some resonance in the film, undetected by me. During the months in which the exhibition is being prepared, the architect develops abdominal pains, which are ultimately diagnosed as stomach cancer. During the same months he and his wife have differences, and she welcomes the advances of a quasi-professional Italian seducer. The latter has a sophisticated sister with whom he has a bizarre relationship—you know those Europeans—and the sister sets her cap (I euphemize) for the architect. All these ideas are meant to build to a tragic-ironic climax, but absolutely nothing is accomplished in this film other than a series of posings and of doughy dialogues in the middle of beautiful pictures.

Brian Dennehy, an American version of Sean Connery's Mr. Hearty, is the architect, and struggles to make a human being out of a concoction, but he is doomed. The wife is Chloe Webb, so affecting as Nancy in Sid and Nancy, who here is out of place and class. Lambert Wilson plays the European seducer of an American wife as an up-to-date version of what Erich von Stroheim did in Blind Husbands (1919), The Devil's Pass Key (1920), and Foolish Wives (1922).

Generalizations about Greenaway must be tentative because so much of his work is unknown here—numerous shorts and two other features. But, on the evidence so far, it seems that The Draughtsman's Contract was a stroke of luck. This is not to deny his brains and talent, only to note that, a painter by training and a painter still, Greenaway's films seem another form of painterly expression, “justified” by allegorical plot schemes that he hopes will rise to the level of his visual art. Only once so far, with The Draughtsman, has his screenplay been as good as his eye. He needs advice, to keep him from wasting his sure talent on his unsure one.

Michael Wilmington (review date 22 June 1990)

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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 excretions of the flesh.

Here, Greenaway gives us the deliciously named Stourley Kracklite, a seemingly sturdy, successful Chicago architect (played, superbly, by Brian Dennehy) who's become obsessed with his opposite, a little-known visionary French architect named Etienne-Louis Boullée. Boullée, a real-life eighteenth-century figure, designed magnificent buildings and tombs, mostly never built, for a city he never saw: Rome.

In the film, Kracklite comes to Rome at the behest of the Speckler family to curate an exhibition of Boullée's drawings in the Victor Emmanuel Building, Italy's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Like the wealthy patrons of The Draughtsman's Contract, the Specklers prove to be a poisonous, amoral lot: the aristocratic, unhelpfully remote father (Sergio Fantoni), the voyeuristic daughter (Stephania Cassini) and, especially, the cruel, voluptuary son, Caspasian (Lambert Wilson), who picks up sensual hints from the way Kracklite's spouse, Louisa (Chloe Webb), eats cake and sets out to wrest both wife and exhibit away from him.

The Belly of an Architect is, in some ways, a construction of absolute paranoia. Just as Kracklite and the others are dwarfed in the vast, monumental Roman interiors—in compositions that deliberately recall the fixed perspective and classical balance of artists like Raphael, Vermeer, Piranesi or Canaletto—so art and life inexorably crush down Kracklite. From the moment he sets foot in Rome—at an elaborate reception staged in front of the Pantheon, with a cake molded in the shape of Boullée's planned spherical tomb for Isaac Newton—he doubles over with stomach pains. The attacks get worse and worse. He becomes obsessed with bellies, his own and that of Augustus Caesar, who died from poisoned figs.

The image of a British 1 note with Newton's picture, in the sugary ruins of the Newton cake, prefigures the way greed and disease will rot away Kracklite's dreams. As his wife's pregnancy grows—the movie begins with her moment of conception and ends with labor—Kracklite's belly-obsession absorbs and destroys him. Around him, Greenaway, cinematographer Sacha Vierny and art designer Luciana Vedovelli provide an exquisite, sometimes darkly witty backdrop.

As Kracklite, Dennehy gives a wonderfully nimble performance, with a formidable exterior of sanity and health that gives Kracklite's torment added poignancy. He has a virtuoso breakdown scene in the Pantheon Square, thrashing and wailing like a great drunken bear in pinpoint balance. But Webb's role is like another layer of paint that chemically clashes with Dennehy's, making a black smear. Her line readings reek with studied archness—as if she'd stumbled, against her will, into a Restoration-comedy soap opera in hell and was trying to punk-drawl her way loose.

The movie's flaw encompasses more than Webb. As in The Draughtsman's Contract, Greenaway seems to wallow in his artist-hero's entrapment in evil, and that makes Belly something of a cul-de-sac, never rising out of its tomb of artificiality and self-reference.

There's a pristine, art-obsessed formalism about Peter Greenaway's films that seems to offend some critics, but that's a pretty dubious response. The Belly of an Architect (rated R for sex and language) has flaws, smudges and intense pleasures. Something like a clockwork orange, it's an art machine that spurts juice and acid.

Richard Blake (review date 23 June 1990)

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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 “unrated,” since many theater chains will not show X-rated films and many papers will not accept advertising for them. The publicity value of the controversy is not being wasted, since the ads offer the gullible the prospect of artistic, and thus respectable, pornography.

The Cook is only part of a wider issue. Pedro Almadóvar's latest wry look at sexual mores in post-Franco Spain, Tie Me Up; Tie Me Down, received an X-rating and is keeping it. Henry, The Portrait of a Serial Killer, by John McNaughton, follows the pattern of The Cook and bills itself as unrated.

The Cook is graphic in its treatment of sexual behavior and cruelty, but it is far from pornographic. It is a highly elaborate tissue of metaphors about the emptiness of consumer society. Never does the British director and writer Peter Greenaway offer the slightest suggestion that he is presenting “reality.” As the titles appear on the screen, a pack of dogs in an eerie blue driveway rummage through the garbage outside a restaurant. Several men assault another, strip their victim and smear him and force him to ingest dog feces.

Abruptly the action shifts from the outside world of sordid reality to a world of supreme artifice. In the opening shot, red velvet curtains open and in a long tracking shot two pages escort the audience from the alley, through a grotesque green-tinted restaurant kitchen into a lavish red, gold and black dining room, where even the patrons match the decor. The kitchen, with its mediating color and brutal yet artistic process of preparing food—gutting fish and plucking fowl—serves as a link between the two worlds, and the brilliant chef (Richard Bohringer) acts as a surrogate for the filmmaker, using his art to transform the sordid realities of life into art. The seven acts of this chamber play are introduced by an engraved menu offering the specialty of the day throughout one week.

Albert Spica, the thief (Michael Gambon), is a monster, and a parody of the artist, as one who has gone mad in the pursuit of money and power. His voice dominates the sound track like the screech of a train whistle in a tunnel. He and his cohort of thugs leave their victim lying in the alley and enter the restaurant, where they sit at a long table dressed in the red sashes under a huge painting by Frans Hals of wealthy burgers at their meal. The group in the painting also wear red sashes over their dark clothes, and so the hoodlums become a living parody of great art.

Spica owns the restaurant, ironically called “Spica and Boar,” but he is more than a boor. He believes his wealth and power give him the right to abuse people physically as well as psychologically. He is an artist of brutality, believing himself as good an artist as the chef and superior because of power.

The thief's wife Georgina (Helen Mira) adds one bit of civilization to the dinner. In the real world, she could not endure the company for 30 seconds, but in the world of the imagination, she is the battleground. Art and its perversion (in the person of Spica) battle for her soul. She is afraid to leave him, and may even be grotesquely attracted by his wealth, yet when she sees a stranger (Alan Howard) reading a book during his meal, she signals to him and the two engage in frantic love-making in a stall of the ladies room. Again, Greenaway makes no pretense at reality. When the lovers pass from the garish red of the dining room into the bathroom, their clothes become as white as the tiled walls. Georgina, an image of the art-consuming public, is starved for any moment of authentic passion other than the mindless violence of her husband. She does not need much encouragement to seduce and be seduced.

Since food is the controlling metaphor for art, swallowing takes on a special significance. In the opening sequence, the philistines of the contemporary art world force their victim to swallow feces. Ever eager to pose as cultured, the thugs try new tastes in the restaurant, but then spit or vomit their dislikes out over the table. They cannot swallow the finer things of life; they know only destruction. When they torture a young dishwasher, who sings incessantly with his shrill soprano as an artist in training in the kitchen, they tear buttons from his clothes and force him to swallow them. In a scene as horrifying as any in a recent film, they take revenge on the wife's lover by stuffing books, page by page, down his throat and into his nostrils until he expires. Finally, the wife's revenge involves forcing Spica into an act of cannibalism. Artists, both mediocre and meretricious ones, are, according to Greenaway, continually trying to ram things down our throats until we gag.

The message is well taken, and social satirists can be given some room for a coarse presentation of their ideas. Even Jonathan Swift found the idea of cannibalism congenial on the occasion of his “Modest Proposal.” Greenaway is no Jonathan Swift, however. He has the subtlety of a finger in the eye. While scorning the literal narrative element in inferior films and basing his work on elaborate visual metaphors, he collapses into literal presentation himself, and this film is just as brutal as those he excoriates. It might have been directed by Albert Spica. At the same time, the use of sense metaphors—the colors, the sexuality, the food—becomes by a strange paradox oddly cerebral, as though Greenaway is inviting us to share his own mind games. The film demands too much and offers too little in return. The ideas are fine, but as a film it just isn't very good.

Does it deserve its X-rating? Yes and no. Yes, if the original meaning of the X were still operative. The Cook contains many strong passages that would certainly be offensive to some adults and should never be shown to children. The self-imposed X, with no relationship to the M.P.A.A., however, has been taken over by pornographers as part of their own marketing strategy and is shorthand for “hot stuff.” Most of the public now reads the X in this context. The Cook does not fit into that category at all, and so in that sense it should not have received its X-rating in the first place. The sex and violence did not strike me as much more graphic than many scenes now passing through the shopping malls and cable networks with an R-rating.

If X were still understood to mean nothing more than unsuitable for minors, the present controversy would never have taken place, and I would not have felt obliged to sit through the film and write about it at more length than it deserves. Some viewers may find its theme intriguing and the color photography by Sacha Vierny exquisite, but on balance it is a most unpleasant experience to subject the psyche to.

Some voices within the industry want to create yet another category, the A-rating, meaning for adults only, to distinguish some films from the deliberately vulgar XXX-rated fare. The distinction could be tricky, since the M.P.A.A. rating should not be awarded on the basis of the film's artistic merit or the integrity, talent and motivation of its makers. It is simply a service for the consumer, much like the label on a package of bologna. It reveals any potentially harmful ingredients in the product, not whether the individual consumer will like the stuff. The new notation may be worth a try, however, since the X is now meaningless, and it would be unfortunate if the entire system of ratings lost its credibility with the public and the industry. Give The Cook an A, and then stay home.

Edmond Grant (review date October–November 1990)

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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 attempt to excuse the film's clever cruelties with an academic appraisal. It's simply that, in the insular, hyper-stylized world that Greenaway fashions, the distasteful acts performed by Albert Spica (“the Thief,” played by Michael Gambon) seem like a natural part of the scenery.

For the film, like Greenaway's other features, appears at a casual glance to operate solely on a visual level, offering a carefully structured view of a totally artificial space; what goes on to occur in that space, though, is always a function of an intellectual system. In other words, the organs the film seems aimed at are the eyes and the stomach (the body part that Greenaway obsessively analyzed in Belly of an Architect); once one begins to decipher the narrative, however, it becomes clear that Greenaway wishes to affect his viewers' minds as well.

The plotline is so minimalist it's almost misleading: Spica and his entourage dine nightly at a restaurant that he has bought into. A pure bred philistine, he beats the employees if he doesn't like a meal, and eats like a slob when he does. He can basically do anything that he wants to, as he controls everything that goes in the restaurant and its periphery. Well, just about everything; what he doesn't recognize is that his wife carries on each evening with an introverted bookshop owner in a closeted area of the kitchen.

The strikingly colored restaurant, where nearly all the film's action takes place, is a space where all corporal acts are equal: eating has just the same degree of brutal intensity as does sex, torture, defecation, and the last bodily function of all, death. Greenaway chooses to populate this space with a number of broadly drawn characters, with the titular quartet occupying the focus.

Much has been made of the film's symbolic level, due to the fact that the film's characters clearly emerge as archetypes, and Greenaway has stated in interviews that the film's evident vulgarity is intended as a reaction against the Thatcher government and its morally repressive leanings. Some clearly readable symbols do exist: the “lover” character, for instance, is a stick figure, who seems to represent the overly silent (he doesn't speak for a good portion of the film) academic element in society, individuals who arm themselves with knowledge, and know all too well the lessons history has to offer (the lover's main interest being the French Revolution). The other three lead characters all have easily definable personas, but what they may actually signify is less readily apparent. For instance, Spica could either be seen as a stand-in for all cruel employers, or the upper classes who live off the work of the common people, or a despotic ruler who acts swiftly and without remorse (presumably the Thatcher connection), or he could simply be the dark side of the underclass, a greedy cockney hood gone big time. In short, if Greenaway did intend The Cook, the Thief, … to have political overtones, his overriding desire to create an ornate work of art has rendered the allegory nearly indecipherable. Which could, in fact, have been what Greenaway wanted all along—a primal parable meant to shock those lulled into acquiescence by morally repressive leaders.

Enigmatic symbols aside, what does remain in the forefront is the strong work done by three of the leads (the role of the lover proving thankless for Alan Howard). Helen Mirren exhibits a ripe sexuality as the wife, a perennial victim of her husband's contempt, a woman whose only liberation is found in sex (not exactly a role British actresses “of a certain age” would flock to). Bohringer skillfully underplays the role of the cook, the only individual who refuses to buckle under to Spica's every whim; he not only demands sovereignty in the kitchen, but he also helps to arrange the interludes between the wife and her lover. The film's longest sequence, a kitchen conversation between the cook and the wife, reveals Bohringer's understated command of his character. At the other end of things, Michael Gambon (best known on these shores for his starring performance in the exquisite Singing Detective) goes all out as Spica, overacting to the nth degree and delivering an outrageously broad performance that alternately arouses total disgust and terrific amusement.

Despite the admirable work done by the cast, this is a director's film that boasts a wholly original look, which dominates over everything else, including message and characterization. Greenaway and director of photography Sacha Vierny (a veteran of seven Resnais films, Belle Du Jour, and Greenaway's last three features) have gone so far as to color-code the various spaces in which the action takes place, thus not only altering the ambience from scene to scene, but making the characters' garish clothing look different from shot to shot—the bizarre fashions, incidentally, the product of Jean-Paul Gaultier's imagination (the same Gaultier who styled the “torpedo” look for Madonna's current concert tour). This jarring colorization of the sets could be scrutinized for hidden meaning—the press notes speak of the restaurant's red as “symbolizing danger” and the kitchen's green implying “safety”—but primarily, the device is an aesthetic one, calculated to trigger certain emotional responses.

The same reactions are solicited by Greenaway's usual visual trademarks: symmetically composed images that find the characters dwarfed by the architecture surrounding them; other compositions that “trap” the characters within windows, mirrors, or bars; and selective camera movements, such as the 360° pan used here to slowly circle Spica's table, revealing that his wife has scurried off while he, and we, weren't watching.

The film's visual style is so geometrically precise and chromatically bizarre that the viewer winds up distanced from the action. What obliterates this distance is the immediacy of the film's most noted element, the very carnal and often physically brutal acts committed by the characters. Greenaway's rampant aestheticism transforms all it touches, flattering the rather fleshy, middle-aged union of the wife and her lover, while underscoring a strategy he has employed before: the introduction unto an utterly idyllic environment of one nightmarish element. The rot and decay that intruded in the pristine settings of his Zed and Two Noughts are incarnated here by Spica. The kind to kick a man while he's down (and utilize dog excrement for some added humiliation), Spica is an irredeemable bully, a tyrant who likes to harm beauteous individuals (his wife, the small child who sings arias in the restaurant's grand kitchen) and resents the lover's knowledge as much as his dallying with his wife.

And as if Spica's actions weren't enough, Greenaway has decay lurking right outside the restaurant in the form of two truckfuls of rotting meat that no one gets around to unloading. These ugly elements fit quite neatly into Greenaway's design for the film, providing the fly in the ointment, the horrific a natural corollary to the beautiful. The message he's trying to impart may be muddled, but the visceral level on which the film affects its audience makes it a unique work, with one added bonus. Because of its innovative nastiness, it has attracted a broadbased audience and a wider release. It seems that, just as was the case with Blue Velvet,Le Grande Bouffe, et al., The Cook, the Thief … acquires as many viewers looking to see a “gross-out movie” as it does serious art house aficionados hoping to solve the enigmas of Greenaway's anti-Thatcherist act of provocation.

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

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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 brilliant film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover an X rating, summarily (and rightly) refused by Greenaway and Miramax, the film's American distributor. Still, the incredible good fortune of finding a Dutch patron/producer (Kees Kasander) willing to finance three film projects at a time and the scandal of the refused X rating (Godard's Hail Mary also benefited from such brouhaha) have combined to move Peter Greenaway from the margin, where he had already made five feature films, and catapult him into mainstream film consciousness, where he belonged all along.

The reviews thus far have predictably reduced the film to its most controversial moments (feces and urination in the opening scene, nudity everywhere in the restaurant, vomiting, the fork in Patricia's cheek, the evisceration of Pup's belly button, the stuffing of Michael with book pages, the final meal and cannibalism) or distanced themselves from the film by citing Greenaway's diversity (author, painter, art historian), his taxonomical brilliance (games with numbers, alphabets, painterly tableaux, filmic hommages, literary allusions), his unconventional narratives, only to distance themselves further by categorizing him as mannerist, elitist, very British in his word play and puns, and, finally, too intellectual for the medium in which he works. The first type of review is a little like reducing Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou to the cutting of the eyeball or Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris to its one scene of anal sex. The second type of review reminds me of the same accusations (elitism, mannerism, formalism, chilly intellectualism) levied against the films of Eisenstein, Alain Resnais, Straub-Huillet. They survived such attacks, and so will Greenaway.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover cannot be reduced to its controversial moments, to its surface narrative, which is but one element among many at play in the film, or to any sort of plot summary or character identification. Likewise, Greenaway has proved more erudite than any of his interviewers/reviewers (I won't be an exception here), who are challenged by the film's structure and seduced into playing the various “games” of alphabet, numerology, Greek myths, bestiaries, hidden paintings, and color codings. In fact, what I find most tantalizing about the film is that no one review or reading is adequate to the task. And what I admire in Greenaway is that, like Eisenstein and Resnais, he sees in cinema, not a confined medium for reworking formulaic narrative fictions, but a total work of art (cinema as art history, as canvas, as architecture, as stage, as opera). His interest in the films of Hollis Frampton, the music of John Cage, and Dutch landscape paintings attests to an eclectic mind, a cannibalistic appreciation of art forms (here a compliment), and a willingness to see in cinema a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.


The first names given to the characters in The Cook … are those of the actors originally intended to play the roles: Albert Spica (for Albert Finney), Georgina (for Georgina Hale), Michael (for Michael Gambon, who asked Greenaway for the part of Albert instead) and Richard (for Richard Bohringer). Helen Mirren was a third choice for Georgina (after Vanessa Redgrave), and Alan Howard eventually came to play the role of Michael. Finally, though, there is a protocol of naming at work in The Cook. Characters name other characters as though branding them, using the names obsessively and repetitively throughout the film. Albert calls his cook Richard, Richie, Ricky, Boarst—changing the names to taunt the cook, to strip him of his Frenchness and refinement. Boarst meanwhile says “Mr. Spica” at the end of every sentence directed to Albert; the formality of last name-calling is the cook's way of holding the gangster in utter contempt. Georgina warns Michael never to call her Georgie, and, while he rarely uses her name, except to thank Spica for giving the name to him, Georgina uses Michael's name obsessively once she learns it. Greenaway's earlier films also employ this obsessive name-calling, but in The Cook the device feels orchestral, swells to high theatricality, emphasizes the artificiality of the narrative. One could do a whole Derrida-deconstruction of the use of proper names in Greenaway films (following Derrida's discussion of proper names in On Grammatology, with special reference to Rousseau), but here I merely want to call attention to the way in which name-calling in The Cook is rarely referential or purely ornamental, but instead is antagonistic, obsessive, rhythmic, and finally, emblematic of the way language overall is used in the film: stating, restating, inverting, following assertions with inverted rhetorical questions (for example, Georgina's “I'm getting good at this, aren't I, Michael? Aren't I getting good at this? Michael, aren't I getting good … ?”): language used as barb and taunt, as appetizer and hors d'oeuvre, as wrong never righted, as tort and retort, as stychomithia, quick repartee (sped-up Beckett or Pinter). Names, finally, are a form of synecdoche, part for whole, in The Cook, insisting metonymically (as opposed to metaphorically) upon contiguity and loss. They are no match for the alimentary camera, the avidity of images, the corporeality that runs to excess everywhere in the film.

Much has already been made of the pure evil of Spica, and yet this allegorization of Michael Gambon's performance does him a disservice in my reading of the film. Gambon's Spica is never tiresome, boring, or easily dismissed. If the opposite of despicable is admirable, then Gambon's Spica begs for a middle term, spicable, one who is admirably despicable, always other, irreducible, and not because he escapes labeling (his oral and anal fixations receive ample play in the film), but because he continues to use language like few other characters in recent film history. The Spica who speaks, who seems always at a loss but never at a loss for words, is he who enthralls us. His voice roars throughout the film, never modulated by spatial distance or wherever the camera might happen to be. This lion roars right up to the moment of his own extinction; in fact, it is his silence that makes the last scene so strange, accentuated by the gang of standing people confronting him; by the long body of the cooked Michael, whose penis is lined up with Spica's stomach; by the Michael Nyman theme of cello and violins, raised to an eerie “contemporary” crescendo with the addition of an alto sax, from a sumptuous classical sound to a strident jazz; and by the finally circular camera that moves around behind Spica, as though to take his point of view, but only in point of fact to take the bullet from Georgina's gun.

Gambon's performance, then, is the most noteworthy among the entire ensemble of great performances, which emphasizes a very rare experience for the spectator, that of no point of view. We can neither take Spica's point of view nor a comfortable point of view against him; nor can we inhabit any other character's point of view: not the cook's (too marginal, too kinky, and finally too voyeuristic) nor Michael's (too enigmatic, too unexplainably turned on and yet passive, and finally too dead) nor Georgina's, although her point of view is as close as we get to taking anyone's point of view, which amounts to character identification. The risky scenes, from Greenaway's point of view and his avowed refusal of character identification, are the last three, and in particular the long monologue in extreme close-up when Georgina tells her “story” to the dead Michael. Her revenge and one-word epithet, “cannibal,” strip the previously told personal story of its depth. Her shouted “cannibal” aligns with the silent “revolution” on the bloody page she pulls out of Michael's mouth. The French Revolution, so dear to Michael, like the Jacobean revenge tragedy Georgina reenacts, ends in a senseless reign of terror, an annihilation uninhabitable beyond the moment of its perpetration. Georgina succeeds finally, not so much in making Albert eat the cooked flesh of her dead lover, but in making Albert eat his own words, which is to say, she reduces him to silence.

Richard and Michael, by contrast, are “minor” characters, the first and last terms of the litany title. They are more aligned than being the cook and the cooked. Both are extremely funny in their exposition and execution. Richard is always ruffled but dignified, all talk and absence, even as Michael is very present and mostly silent. Both are voyeurs, both are reactive, dependent upon the more dominant Albert and Georgina.


The uninhabitable point of view in The Cook is emphasized by the camera panning of Sacha Vierny. Once again, Alain Resnais is an important footnote. Vierny was Resnais's cameraman for many years, and now he seems to be an integral part of Greenaway's ensemble. The films of Resnais are acknowledged favorites of Greenaway, in particular Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963). Marienbad, in fact, has much the same theme and surface narrative as The Cook: an outsider comes to a baroque locale and initiates an affair with a married woman, only to arouse the suspicions and need for vengeance of the husband. Rumor has it that Greenaway showed Last Year at Marienbad to his cast and crew during the shooting of his The Draughtman's Contract (1982). And Greenaway has professed an admiration for Resnais's Providence as well, especially as it is one of the few other films to show characters in a toilet (Greenaway's allusion), but also as it has an admirably despicable main character obsessed with both corporeality and language in Clive Langham (John Gielgud—who has all the speaking parts in Greenaway's current feature, Prospero's Books, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night). But, beyond all this footnoting and elective affinity between the two filmmakers and a shared cameraman, there is an essential difference. In Vierny's mobile camera for Resnais, whether it's the moody camera mounted on a car going through the night-time streets of Hiroshima mon amour or the elaborate and elliptical 360° pans in Last Year at Marienbad (where the looker authorizing the vision behind the pan is suddenly inscribed as the looked-at within the pan) or the “surveillance” camera of Bernard in Muriel, the camera panning always devolves to a particular character's point of view or memory, often subjective and unreliable, but still a point of view, nevertheless. Vierny's camera-work for Greenaway, by contrast, almost never devolves to a character's point of view; instead, it insists upon spatial configurations rather than character temporality (since time and point of view are always aligned), it accentuates the artificiality and theatricality of Greenaway's narratives, and it is thus freed up from the constraints of following character and collapsing into point of view to do quite innovative things (like mobilize painterly tableaux and deal with issues of perspective in Dutch table paintings, as is the case in The Cook).

For all that freedom, Vierny's camera in The Cook does follow a structural pattern. Beginning with the play's curtains which authorize it, the camera pans laterally past scaffolding along a blue ramp with gold studs, showing the same simulacra each time: a partially obscured sign for La Concourse (a road) to read “course” (part of a meal); the neon sign “Luna,” a simulacrum for moon as well as an allusion to Bertolucci's film about incest. At the delivery door to the restaurant, the camera centers to show the two food trucks and the various vehicles driven by Spica and his men, with many license plates, ranging from “NID” (nest) to “HEX.” This stopping place for the camera is often obscured by the many dogs that run back and forth, in one instance so close that they create a black-frame cut. The camera pans left to right again through the kitchen, shown with a wide lens down-angled to revealed the high ceilings and a space big enough to house airplanes—a space much too large for a restaurant kitchen. The camera pauses during the panning to pick up signs again (the SPICA and BOARST names), the many tables for cutting, the “otherness” of all the sub-cooks and waiters (a Vermeer woman, a Dickens boy, a black, a Chinese, several people speaking Italian, a barechested butcher, a barber) and many more partially obscured or hidden places (a ladder walk-up, a draped room for poultry and game, another for bread and bakery products). In the kitchen the camera stops most often where Richard is or Pup is, following Richard's voice or Pup's sung homilies. As the camera moves into the restaurant proper, the panning is timed to coincide with the Michael Nyman themes on the soundtrack (Pup's homilies for the kitchen, Nyman's themes for the restaurant). The fourth wall does not exist, so the panning does not stop or go around; it merely continues, left to right, and, if it does not match up with character point of view, it does match up with the songs or themes. There is always a period of entry in the restaurant where the camera pans along tables of dead birds and poultry, fish on ice, whatever is sumptuously rotting in excess in the foreground, and the Franz Hals painting “The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Company” (1614) in the background. Sometimes, there are people from a wedding party, a shoulder wrap or yarmulke from a Jewish ritual, various couples seated at tables, but the camera “swallows” them up in its passage to the Spica table, always shown with part of the Hals painting visible, so that some of the men in the Hals painting (including a Spica look-alike) are always looking upon the Spica table. The scene is still depicted in wide-angle and showing more ceiling than floor, but here space is deceptive, because we don't know the true dimensions of the Hals painting; we rarely stop for any vantage point far enough away from the Spica table to convey true distance (one rare exception is when Georgina stops at Michael's table to look at his books, and we see both Albert and Richard looking at her, and the room seems enormous), and, finally, we don't ever get the true dimensions of the back wall until the last scene when that wall is the point of entry for Albert.

When the camera moves from right to left and pans again, this time leaving the restaurant, it often accentuates the event in the narrative (Spica dragging Georgina out to the kitchen, for example), by pulling back and up, even as it moves faster than the characters, so that there is both a tension/dynamics of speed and an emotional distance from the characters. Panning left to right to follow the various sound elements or panning right to left to follow characters and exit scenes, these are the parameters of Vierny's mobile camera. There are two significant breaks with this pattern. The cuts between scenes are always the various menus for each succeeding day, and, about halfway through the film, after one of these menus as insert, the camera is already in the restaurant proper, and it follows the back of Richard who is walking the space between tables behind the longest of the Spica table configurations, the meal that includes Patricia with Corey and Terry Fitch and his entourage at the other end. Since the camera follows Richard, it is already beyond the Hals painting, and it prefigures the back wall for the first time. His path is that taken by Georgina and all of Albert's accusers in the last scene, which is the second significant break, following a blank menu announcing that the restaurant is closed for a private function.

In this last scene, the Vierny camera moves in a circular way, remindful of his many circular camera movements for Resnais, hinting at the possibility finally of a finitely located point of view, only to make it impossible—the point of view of the silenced Albert, he who has eaten the flesh of another, he who is shot as soon as the camera has succeeded in getting behind him for the first time in the film, so that what is revealed, then, is the tipped-over chair, the metonymy of Spica, and Georgina holding the gun. In the long list of Greenaway's taxonomical obsessions, this one is the equivalent of the camera violence of Hitchcock's Spellbound, when Dr. Murchison turns the gun barrel around on himself for a suicide, and the gun is pointed at the camera and spectator as a result.


In Freud's elaboration of the various drives, the oral and anal stages of child development represent drives of demand, whereas the scopic and invocatory drives represent drives of desire. All four main characters in The Cook are arrested somewhere between the two kinds of drives, Albert most notably at the oral and anal stages, and their various arrested developments provide the basis for their obsessive-compulsive behaviors and one revenge leading to another. That they are arrested and therefore pathetic is an additional way of saying that there is no point of view for the spectator to inhabit. And their pathos is mitigated by Greenaway in the way he renders them comic in their caught places. Albert, when he is not slugging Georgina in the stomach or attacking Pup at the belly button or otherwise attacking all the other characters at the digestive tract, is quite comic in the way he plays out his anal fixations: following Georgina into the ladies' room, attacking a gentleman at a urinal, telling Michael to go “stand in the corner like a naughty little boy,” telling William and his party “you're going to have to eat in the kitchen like naughty little children,” asking Georgina which hand she wiped with.

At a more sophisticated level, all of the vicissitude pairings from Freud are played out in The Cook: voyeurism-exhibitionism, sadism-masochism, and coprophilia (playing with feces)-coprolalia (dirty language). What is true of all these pairings is that one needs the other for full enactment: the voyeur needs an exhibitionist, the sadist needs a masochist, and so forth. Also one component is dominant, the other recessive, so that the weaker, turned in upon itself, includes the stronger: the exhibitionist, turned inward, is a form of voyeurism upon the self, an auto-eroticism. The masochist, likewise, can be seen as a sadist onto himself/herself. Many of these pairings play out in comic ways in The Cook. Georgina shows Michael how to hold her breast before they go to have sex in the ladies' room. Albert comes to watch Georgina in the bathroom (his various attempts at voyeurism, except at home, are always interrupted and unsuccessful). But he puts his hand on Georgina's breast in exactly the same way that she had put Michael's hand, even as Michael watches from the bathroom stall. And, after their love affair has advanced to include most of the rooms off the kitchen, Michael asks Georgina if they couldn't meet somewhere else, and she responds: “No. It's impossible. Better do it right under his nose … between courses …” Albert, for his part, emphasizes the voyeurism, telling Grace to “go look out a window or something” and telling Georgina she has a bladder “like a leaky mirror.” And when Michael is dead, Georgina comes to Richard for confirmation of a voyeuristic kind. “How can I know he loved me if there were no witnesses?” she asks. And he answers that he saw what she let him see. “How could I know it was real unless someone was watching?” she says. And she seduces and cajoles him into telling his litany of things seen, his recitation made comic by his lack of experience (his realms of existence are cinema, his parents, his fantasies, and what he has seen Georgina do), his measured speech with heavy French accent, and his transformation of the sexual into the alimentary: “I saw you take his penis into your mouth,” etc.

While Georgina is masochist to Albert's sadism and unwilling exhibitionist to his voyeurism, she uses Michael to turn the tables, making their love affair a sadism upon Albert's unsuspecting masochism and making their love affair an exhibitionism for Richard's voyeurism and for just about everyone else in the kitchen as well. How these various shifts in the vicissitude pairings play out without a stable and inhabitable point of view being taken comes back to the camera again, whose metonymic function, by what it shows and swallows up in contiguity, is to “complete” in overall filmic terms what the incomplete and arrested characters and surface narrative cannot complete.


The metaphoric function of the camera, by contrast, is to produce a vertical narrative (as opposed to a linear and horizontal narrative of camera pans) of painterly tableaux. These are too many to mention in exhaustive detail or analysis, but I will suggest a few: Masaccio's “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve” (the naked lovers in the maggot-infested food van); Andrea Del Castagno's “The Last Supper” (1436—the long supper table with Fitch and company); Antonello Da Messina's “St. Jerome in His Study” (1460—the book depository scene); Andrea Mantegna's “Dead Christ” (1500) and Rembrandt's “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman” (the view of the dead Michael from the feet up); Van Eyck's “Adam and Eve” (one tableau of the lovers); Rembrandt's “The Syndics of the Draper's Guild” (for one of the Spica suppers, where three of his men are standing behind the table); Vermeer's “The Cook” (1657—for one of the kitchen tableaux). Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Archimboldo get repeated hommages.

Beyond an intellectual's game of citational hide-and-seek is a serious attempt on Greenaway's part to use cinema to discuss problems of perspective and depth in painting, exemplified by his passionate interest in Dutch table paintings. Greenaway has said: “If you could turn a tabletop up, it would almost be the aspect ratio of wide-screen cinema.”1 To conceive of the theatrical screen as a tesselation of a Dutch table painting is innovative indeed.

Why, then, the one giant Franz Hals painting? For one thing, this painting represents the burgeoning bourgeoisie as a class in its depiction of these amateur archers of Haarlem, and Albert, for all his money and pretensions to “class,” cannot escape his bourgeois bloodlines and habits. For another thing, Hals himself represents both Spica and what Spica might have been, had he been successful in his attempts to purchase class. Hals is depicted in art history books as an insatiable drinker, a dissolute and ungovernable hedonist, who caused the death of his first wife by beating her, then had ten children by a second wife.2 The need to feed that many children forced Hals to be prolific. He was as prolific as Vermeer was spare and unprolific—a painter who adored his wife and used her as model and whose few paintings engendered an industry of forgeries, fake Vermeers, which is the sub-subject of Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts.


Just as Vierny's camera is used both metaphorically and metonymically, so too the language in the film functions both ways. Greenaway himself has said: “Cannibalism can be easily used as a metaphor for the end of consumer society. After we've eaten everything else, we shall eat up one another.”3 This cannibalism is meant to be taken metaphorically, not literally, and this point is emphasized by Spica before the last scene when he tells Mitchell: “I didn't mean literally to chew his buttocks. I meant it metaphorically.” The various puns in the film speak as well to the metaphoric pole of language: the obscured letters for Boarst forming both a soup and a borstal authority; the anagrammatic misplay of SPICA in ASPIC, both food and joke (for Albert is no dandy); Albert mispronouncing poisson by saying “poison”; Richard mispronouncing “palate” by saying “palette”; the punning on hoods and Robin Hood; the coq au vin becoming “cock” and “van,” etc.

Probably the most famous example of metaphor is in Albert's transubstantiation of the wet bread, not into sacred host, but into prairie oysters: from prairie oysters to sheep's buttock to wet bread again, as a warning to Mitchell. This use of metaphor is why Mitchell mistakenly chews on Michael's buttock. Mitchell literalized the content of the metaphor (sheep's buttock) and missed the point of the trope altogether.

The most famous example of metonymy is in the move from cows consuming their body weight in water (to produce milk), to human milk and the rare delicacy that is, to Georgina's breasts (he feels her), to the announcement, without missing a beat in language, that she's not wearing a bra, to kids (goat's milk and kidding around) to not having them and wanting them, to having them later, and so forth. This is language off the top of Albert's tongue and including everything and anything around him.

The play of metaphor and metonymy is important in situating the various temporalities addressed by this film. What is English in this film is both Jacobean revenge tragedies and Margaret Thatcher's England; what is Dutch in the film is both the preponderance of gifted portrait painters and table painters as well as the name of the restaurant as well as an allusion to Kees Kasander and the Dutch connection Greenaway has established. What is French in this film is both the refinement of cuisine, aspired to but never reached, as well as the barbarism of the French Revolution and its ensuing reign of terror, exemplified by Michael's books and the various allusions at the book depository. The enjoining of the three countries, traditions, and lifestyles is thus both metaphoric and metonymic. Perhaps more simply put, it is ironic, which is to say it necessitates thinking dividedly, incorporating two things at once, two times at once (the most simplified form of this would be the pun, the most sophisticated form would be the metaphors and metonymies). Once again, that essential dividedness is another way of saying there is no one narrative, no one stable point of view to inhabit, no easy reading of the film.


The colors are coded in The Cook, which codification would normally imply a totality, but what they are turns out to be not at all the same as how they play (like having rules for a game of bridge and then playing out the various hands). The codification attests to metaphor; the various plays attest to metonymy. Of the coding, we can safely assert the following: blue for the car park, green for the kitchen, red for the restaurant, white for the toilet, yellow for the hospital, and gold for the book depository. And Greenaway in interviews has spoken of the metaphoric value of such colors (colors denoting safety in China, Rimbaud's poem on colors, etc.).4

But the colors, when put into play, have all to do with misperceptions. The hospital, for example, is an elaborate joke in my reading, referring to Fitch talking about saving his ears and Spica responding by asking if he wants a floor show with mute nuns. (Which he literally gets.) The film opens with Albert accusing Georgina of wearing black. She says she's wearing blue. In fact, in the restaurant her dress is red, while in the white bathroom her dress goes to white, with black feathers (she looks like Delphine Seyrig in Last Year at Marienbad). This “play” is in contrast with the color coding in Providence, another Resnais film, in which the kitchen of Claude and Sonia is black and white, while the bedroom, sheets, wine, and everything associated with the authoring Clive Langham (Gielgud) is in red. The joke in Greenaway is that Michael is in brown in the restaurant as well as in the bathroom. And at the end of the film, after Richard has made a long speech about charging more for things that are black, because “eating black food is like consuming death,” we might reasonably expect the cooked Michael to look a little blackened and charred. But no, he's still in brown. The other joke about the cooked Michael is that we get visual proof that he was not Jewish, for his penis is clearly uncircumcized.

In Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts the various denizens of the zoo came to represent both color codings and metaphors: the toucan and bird of paradise, with all their colors, as representations of life affirmed, while the zebra, with its black and white stripes, represented death and enigma; in The Draughtsman's Contract, the black-and-white drawings of Neville, versus the sumptuous colors of the things drawn, function the same way. But in The Cook it's as though Greenaway said to himself, well okay, I'll code the colors and that will deceive the lazy spectator into easy incorporation into the narrative, but then I'll sabotage the coding and play jokes and have my fun with them as well.


Michael Nyman has received deserved praise for the musical score for The Cook and he is now in demand (he wrote the score for Monsieur Hire). What fascinates me about the Nyman score is the way it reprises the same musical themes and motifs at the end of Drowning by Numbers and the whole of A Zed and Two Noughts at the same time that it extends them, ironizes them, represents both the pomp and theatricality of The Cook as well as the vibrancy and play of the restaurant scenes. Nyman's music is both the easiest register of intertextuality between Greenaway films and the most difficult element of the mise-en-scène to assimilate or explain adequately. There are the soft notes of the love scenes and the washing off of feces and maggots (remindful of Satie's “Trois Gymnopédies”) as well as the simple to complex orchestration of cello and violin to finally include sex for the panning and ultimately circular camera. What I am saying is that to understand fully The Cook as film is to understand how Nyman's score and Vierny's camera play off each other, not what happens to Georgina and Michael and Albert.

Sound, like the various colors, is both coded and sabotaged, so that what it is on blueprint is not how it plays in final cut. Sound is so exaggerated at times that it calls attention to itself and away from narrative event. When Georgina lights her cigarette in the kitchen, the sound of the match being lit is so loud it competes with, and momentarily drowns out, the singing of Pup. Albert bursts through the doors from the kitchen and into the restaurant as though through the gates of Hades: loud, massive, overpowering, as though the kitchen, were we to figure the various parts of the restaurant as a human body, were the bowels. Pup's sung homily, because the Vierny pans past a stack of glasses forming a pyramid, reflects the jarring ring of those glasses, even before we see Pup. When Georgina goes off with Richard to the hospital to see Pup, Michael closes the gates to the book depository and locks them several ways, and the sound is too loud and jarring, ironically so, because all those gates and all that sound cannot prevent Albert and his men from getting in. The hospital is noteworthy for the absence of sound, just as, by contrast, the evisceration of Pup's belly button is not conveyed visually, although some people will swear they saw it, but rather by Pup's strident screams. Too much sound in an enclosed space or too little sound in a vast space, Greenaway confounds our expectation of the aural-visual ratio. And such a thwarting of our spectator expectations is yet one more way of keeping us between, keeping us off-guard and ill at ease, keeping us from inhabiting a stable point of view.

The success (scandal) of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover means, by way of proliferated information and anecdotes (as though we're now ready to consume so much Greenaway as to cannibalize him) that we already know that he intends The Cook to be the first of a trilogy of films, yet to include Love among the Ruins (his confrontation with feminism, a retelling of Medea and eating her children) and The Man Who Met Himself (a study of narcissism: “It will be an essay in narcissism, our twentieth-century disease. I want to explore the idea that we're all born as twins and go through life looking for this other person.”).5 With Greenaway new projects are usually intertextual replays of old projects, so that Love Among the Ruins looks like an elaboration of the themes in Drowning by Numbers (to include the same actress who played the middle Cissie Colpitt) and The Man Who Met Himself looks like an elaboration of the themes in A Zed and Two Noughts (whose main characters were twins). The success of The Cook also means that we will likely get to see in America many, if not all, of his earlier films (consumerism's backward stretch). Either way, Greenaway is a filmmaker to be reckoned with, someone so lucky in backing that he's not likely to be stopped and so erudite that he's not likely to be copied, an exciting one-of-a-kind.


  1. Joel E. Siegel, “Greenaway by Numbers,” City Paper (April 6, 1990).

  2. See A Treasury of Art Masterpieces, ed. by Thomas Craven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958), pp. 118–119.

  3. Siegel. See also Kathy Acker, “The Color of Myth,” Village Voice (April 17, 1990).

  4. Siegel, p. 21.

  5. Siegel, p. 23.

Peter Greenaway and Marcia Pally (interview date 1991)

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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 the first time at Lord's Gallery in 1964. In 1965, he became a film editor with the government's Central Office of Information where he cut educational documentaries for a decade.

Greenaway made his first films, Train and Tree, in 1966. By the time he earned, in the late Seventies, his first 7,500 pounds from the British Film Institute for A Walk through H (40 minutes), he'd made over a dozen films while keeping his hand in painting book illustrations, and novel writing. In 1980, Greenaway made the three hour The Falls for 30,000 pounds of BFI money. It won the prestigious BFI Award and landed the funding agency in a crunch. No other organization was likely to finance such kaleidoscopic, non-narrative works, yet the BFI had obligations to other up-and-coming filmmakers and to the new Thatcher government, whose backing helped support it. The controversy about funding Greenaway resolved when the new Channel Four Television agreed to cofinance him with the BFI, provided he kept to a few conventional guidelines. That pact yielded The Draughtsman's Contract and Greenaway's career in feature films.

In addition to his commercial movies, Greenaway continues to work on canvas and in television, with programs as varied as documentaries on contemporary composers and dramatizations of Dante's Cantos. An exhibition of his paintings has been touring Europe for the last year; the 1991 Berlin Film Festival programmed a collection of his videos, and he is completing a novel, Fifty-Five Men on Horseback.

[Pally:] Since density is such a hallmark of your work, would you talk about how you fill up your screen, how you select and order so much stuff?

[Greenaway:] It may be banal to say that cinema is an art—certainly in many parts of the world it is not regarded as such. But if it is an art, it should be allowed everything we accredit to the novel, the symphony, and so on. Works of art refer to great masses of culture, they are encyclopedic by nature. I want to make films that rationally represent all the world in one place. That mocks human effort because you cannot do that. But the works of art that I admire, even contemporary ones like One Hundred Years of Solitude or any three-page story by Borges, has that ability to put all the world together.

My movies are sections of this world encyclopedia. What I'm manipulating is our cultural illusions—all the very potent, meaningful language of illusions that Western culture has. In Cook Thief, I'm looking at cuisine—the very careful effort to arrange and present one of the most primal human activities. It's an effort to de-food food, just like we try to de-chaos chaos. In A Zed and Two Naughts I look at creation myths, Genesis, and Darwin. Genesis is a nice way of ordering the beginning of things with a very pretty myth. Darwinian theory is a nineteenth and twentieth century myth that's trying to do the same time.

I've always had the desire to organize things—where that comes from I don't know. I'm a lousy mathematician, but I am interested in rationality. I suppose it comes from my classical English education and three years in a rather academic art school. My ten years at The Central Office of Information was spent editing films that portray, supposedly, the English way of life through statistics. How many sheepdogs are there is South Wales? How many Japanese restaurants are there in Ipswich? It's all about the organization of ephemera.

My early movies are very much about this sort of organizing. That's what art is about, isn't it—trying to find some order in the chaos? That's what civilization is about, some way to understand, contain this vast amount of data that's pushed at us all the time. Even those who do those false arts—the small Cs, couture, coiffure, and cuisine, all with French names, by the way—they look for a way to order their efforts.

The French chef in Cook Thief is a deliberate cliché that critiques those small-C arts, but he is also me. With each film, I invite people to my table and I make the meal. I take the cultural systems I admire and try to set them out in one place. I demand, as we all do, some sense of coherence, of order in world. And we are always defeated. This is the human condition.

Some artists respond to the need for order by clearing everything away and drawing the one necessary stroke. Your impulses are quite the opposite. Your screen overflows.

I do hope that all the objects and events in my films are germane to the content. Obviously, in a film where I examine cuisine I would examine how other artists have used food in their work. The cook presents cuisine as a piece of civilization. In seventeenth century Dutch painting, which I refer to in Cook Thief, food was also thought to reflect the civilizing forces of that era, the power and wealth of the high bourgeoisie. It declared the success of the political and economic structures emerging at that time.

I think the most successful of all painting has been that of the Dutch golden age—I refer to it in much of my work—because it was done when each individual painter was most understood. It's very bourgeois, not the privilege of the church or state. It was the time when art became most democratic and so most understood by the most people on both its literal and allegorical levels. A woman who holds a mandolin with three broken strings probably means she's had two abortions. It she's not wearing shoes it means she's a loose woman. All that language has been lost to us but it was commonly understood by the bourgeois Dutch, by the people who commissioned the films … er, paintings … sorry, Freudian slip. It was their language. Painting today has again divorced itself from mainstream activities and become a rather rarefied object.

I would like my movies to work the way Dutch painting did, on literal and metaphorical levels. If you've got that as a premise it's no problem at all to find all the information that ought to go in the frame—all the cultural, allegorical material.

How do you choose the organizing art or science for each film?

I try to choose them to be germane to the thematic material. It's very important for satisfactory art that there be a very happy marriage between form and content. Take, for example, A Zed and Two Naughts. It's a film about twin scientists who try to organize the plant and animal universes, the beginning of things. One of the central organizing structures of the film is the alphabet, which I chose because most cultures use it as the basic template for organizing information.

I use number series for that reason, as well. Drowning by Numbers is about game-playing; I begin the film with a little girl counting to a hundred because counting is one of the basic ways games are organized. The film is filled with number games. For instance, the coroner's son is named Smut, which begins with the letter S. So there are one hundred things in the film that begin with S. You don't have to know that to see the film, but it somehow enriches the fabric of it, makes the film again encyclopedic by nature.

Symmetry is an important element in Belly because the problems of construction—or civilization—and decay are seen from the point of view of a classical architect. It makes sense to express civilization with the sorts of constructions he'd be most familiar with. The only time the symmetry collapses is at the end of the film when the architect dies and the audience sees the film on the diagonal. It suggests, I hope, that the Apollonian universe that he tried to maintain has been destroyed.

In Cook Thief I wanted to use color as an organizing principle in addition to cooking because color has become so divorced from meaning in twentieth century painting. We no longer have to paint the sky blue simply because we observe it to be blue, so color has become decorative, even cute. I wanted to make a film where each color had a meaning within the language of the movie. The room where the thief eats, where the violence happens, is red. The car park is blue because it's the cold nether regions of this world. I made the lavatory white obviously with some irony. The book depository is golden to suggest the golden age of books, the gold color of old book bindings.

The kitchen of the restaurant where the cook works is greenish because it suggests safety and vegetation, where food comes from. Because it is a grey-green, stony color and a very large, cavernous room, the kitchen can also be seen as a cathedral. The cook sits at a kind of altar in a rounded apse area. The kitchen boy has a nimbus around his head and sings the 51st Psalm, which is about being an unworthy sinner—which the thief certainly is—and is the low point in the Catholic year.

There are other religious references in the film. The lovers who make love naked amid the food and foliage of the kitchen recall Adam and Eve. When they leave, they go to the book depository, the Tree of Knowledge. They are driven there in a van of red rotting meat, which can suggest their journey through hell. The van can also suggest the Trojan horse myth. Since the van belongs to the thief, he has unwittingly provided that way for his wife and her lover to escape him.

All these minute references rely on the great cultures Western civilization, the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian, which has tried to order and explain the world to its inhabitants for over 2,000 years. These devices should emphasize to viewers that they're watching artifice, a construction overlaid on the world. It is not natural, not slices of life. Cook Thief opens with curtains and closes with curtains. It is a performance. The very effort of placing cultural artifacts into a filmic frame is an attempt to order them.

I'm in no way a neo-realist. Neo-realism and naturalism in cinema is a chimera anyway. You can't be real in cinema; you make a decision about form and artifice for every twenty-four frames per second of film. All those theoreticians who concern themselves with realism in cinema seem to be barking up the wrong tree entirely. I think the most satisfactory movies are those which acknowledge their artificiality.

I'm looking for ways of structuring films that coexist with my thematic material but that also have their own identities and interest. In some ways my films are more satisfactorily explained by the esthetic one brings to painting than to movies. The sense of distance and contemplation they require has much more to do with painting. When you go into an art gallery you don't emote, by and large, like people do in the movies. I know my work is accused of being cool and intellectually exhibitionistic. But I'm determined to get away from that manipulated, emotional response that you're supposed to have to Hollywood cinema. Human relations are considerably harder and harsher, and much more to do with contracts than with any glossy ideas that are so much in the current media package. Most mainstream cinema tends to glamorize, deodorize, romanticize, and sentimentalize. I'm very keen to not do those things.

My other bugbear about Hollywood cinema is that it's based on the nineteenth century psychological novel, and the psychological novel represents only a tiny space in two thousand years of European cultural game-playing. I want to investigate some of those other forms, like Jacobean drama or landscape painting.

In most of your films, men are the civilizers, the people who combat chaos. Women give birth and murder. Your sympathy seems to be with the men—until your last film, Cook Thief, where for the first time you give the woman the civilizing efforts.

My films have been accused both of misogyny and of championing the supremacy and confederacy of women. On one hand, women always end up as the dominant force—especially that last line in Cook Thief when the wife forces her husband to eat the body of her dead lover. “Why don't you eat the cock?,” she says. “It's a delicacy and you know where it's been.” It's seen as the final humiliation of the male. In Drowning by Numbers, which is about impotence, the central man desperately tries to express his sexuality, and he fails.

On the other hand, I'm accused of misogyny because I force these women to go through such humiliating experiences—as though the fact that they win is just my cop-out for all the rest. I don't think I'm a misogynist: I hope I'm not. In Cook Thief, the woman begins cowed and bullied, and ends by finding strength—and she is motivated by love. After all, Cook Thief—though this surprises many people—is motivated by love, not hate or misanthropy. She ends up triumphant, though there is an irony to her triumph. She has to use the violence of her husband to turn it on him and win.

You know that Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon have played together numerous times on the British stage and their best success was in Anthony and Cleopatra.

Who played Cleopatra?

The twentieth century male has desperately to reorganize his sexuality in terms of the emancipation of the twentieth century female. We all know we have a hell of a long way to go. In my films, women make the decisions that make the action. Men may be vile and barbarously destructive or they may make attempts at civilization, but the women make the decisions that count.

But there's been a change in the sorts of decisions your women make. In Cook Thief, the wife kills the thief in the name of civilization. The women in Drowning tolerate men only as long as the men give them sex and children, and then murder them by drowning—all that womblike water. This is the primal view.

One of the projects I'm working on now is a twentieth century reconsideration of the Medea myth. It is a monstrous idea that a woman would murder her own child, but I want to try to place the audience in sympathy with her. Her action will have to do with a bid for absolute freedom without any trammels whatsoever. Medea was a powerful woman who organized her life and fate. She also represents woman as witch, an idea that has permeated all European culture. Men are so shit scared of female activities, especially if they are clandestine.

My movies are cathartic attempts for me to work out certain problems. My characters are the same age as me; as I get older, they do too. I want to make movies for people who have the same anxieties, hopes, fears, and ambitions that I have as a man approaching middle age.

The most personal movie I ever made was Belly of an Architect. For architecture, write film; for architect, write filmmakers. The architect in Belly is trying very hard to put something up in the world, but he's very doubtful so he's doing it by proxy—by mounting an exhibition of the work of an architect who lived hundreds of years ago. He believes that we can make ourselves immortal by creating one grain of sand on the beach of civilization—not by religion, which fades, and not by politics, which fades very rapidly, but through art. Though we know very little about Egyptian religion or statecraft, for instance, we do have their art. It seems to survive, as a talisman that's passed on. Man has been able to make these magnificent structures which do seem worth preserving.

The irony of Belly is that this guy, who's put all his efforts into making art, loses out. He loses his wife, his child, his health, and, ultimately, his life. Many architects end up as paper architects; they never make the final product they've been dreaming about. This is also true of filmmakers. Moreover, the financiers, critics, politicians, and producers are all apparent in the form of a film, in its architecture and perception of the world.

I'm first now understanding how personal my films are. There's a way in which all my films are about my father, he died of stomach cancer, like the architect in Belly. He was a huge man, an anti-intellectual businessman who lived in London and had a great desire to be an ornithologist. He prepared to take early retirement and go to the country with a pair of binoculars, but just at that moment he went down with stomach cancer.

I'm in the extraordinarily fortunate position of being allowed to make signature movies. I have many more ideas—eighteen or twenty scripts lined up to be done. I feel that ultimately I'll be defeated, that there won't be the time to do them.

At the end of Belly, the audience hears the cry of a child, which might indicate that the best way we can be immortal is through the female ethic—even if bearing children for the male is mostly an involuntary process. This may sound like a very corny, clichéd attitude, but if we're concerned with immortality—and I'm sure all of us fear the vacuum of not being here—then we are concerned with that Picasso idea of leaving a stain on the wall.

My films try to address that problem for myself. What is all this about arcane cultural information that I'm trying to construct into a film? What am I doing looking over my shoulder at past ages and dragging all this past culture into some organization, some art, for the present day—this postmodernist concern with trying to make history and culture relevant to now?

Do you have children?

Two daughters. My purpose on earth was finished a long time ago. I do believe in that Darwinian idea that we are here as sperm and ovum carriers.

It's fairly common today to believe that men and women can contribute both children and work—art or science and so on—to the world. Do you disagree?

The Medea character in my new project is an archeologist. Archeologists are concerned with organizing history in a very empirical way. Maybe there's an answer to your question in the future.

The Medea film is not the very next project; that I hope will be a version of The Tempest. We're calling it Prospero's Books but we're using the Shakespearean text. Gonzalo throws some books in the bottom of Prospero's boat, and the rest of the film is seen through those books. It's as though books maketh man. The Tempest suggests that ultimately books led Prospero the wrong way. Again, the film is a concern with organizing, learning, and knowledge—especially for an old man.

There are basically only two subject matters in all Western culture: sex and death. We do have some ability to manipulate sex nowadays. We have no ability, and never will have, to manipulate death.

Do you feel frustrated trying to pass on knowledge through your films?

I get a kick out of the pursuit of knowledge. The sheer garnering of information, the collecting and collating, the finding, reading, and research is of great interest to me. I enjoy it and it's the stuff I want to use to make my movies.

Borges once said it's much more difficult to read a book than to write one. In a peculiar way, he was right. Think of what a work of art demands of an audience. It's OK for me because it's my world; I made it. It's much more difficult for you to inhabit a world of my making.

For instance, my relationship with my father was never a happy one. I'm sure I'm reprising aspects of it in my work. But to make autobiography work for anybody else, it has to be refashioned into something less personal and self-indulgent. I dislike the psychological approach to art. It's too limiting. For instance, do we really know more about Van Gogh's painting of sunflowers because we also know that he cut off his left ear and gave it to a prostitute? Is it important that the author make himself very apparent behind the work? I have the feeling that the work is itself important and what you know about the author doesn't necessarily throw more light on it. It's a terrible misalliance of appreciation.

Psychoanalysis is also used to blame our parents and our heritage for everything that goes on, as if to absolve us of personal responsibility. I object to this a great deal. I have to make my films somehow readable to an audience and financially responsible. Fortunately they have so far been successful enough at the box office, in European terms, for me to go on making them.

How are your films financed?

A Dutch producer, Kees Kasander, financed Zed,Drowning, and Cook Thief. Most of the money comes from European sources—for example, the organizations contributing to Drowning include Film Four in England, the Coproduction Fund for the Dutch Broadcasting Corporation, Elsevier Vendex Film, Prokino in Germany, BAC Films in France, Progres film in Belgium, and so on.

The films are made extremely cheaply. Cook Thief for instance cost something like $2.8 million. And they are organized very economically. Everything is written down; even the smell of flowers is marked if it needs to be there for the actors. Initially, we break even, and after perhaps three of four years we gradually slip into profit.

Do you get BBC funding?

I never have. It's always been Channel Four, till Cook Thief, which they found much too tough for British television. I've always had very large input from French sources. I think my best audiences are French because they are great delighters in the accumulation of knowledge and they understand what I'm doing.

We still have that anti-intellectualism in Britain. The recognized channel for intellectual information in Great Britain is the theater. You can do anything you like there, but not in films. Tom Stoppard, for example can get away with anything. Should you attempt a cinematic essay on grand ideas, there's feeling that film can't hold it together. It's a form of snobbism that ends up as anti-intellectualism.

Anti-intellectualism in the U.S. crosses all art forms; there's no out for theater.

You have a fantastic cultural Puritanism over here. For example, all the attention you pay to frontal male nudity in films. It's too bad for me, really, since the nude-naked nexus is one that interests me. There are a great many issues about the body besides the sexual one—like vanity, for instance. From the European perspective, it seems quite pronounced in America—this coy concern with youth, all the jogging and harsh dietary regimens. It has to us an arch feel, as though you feel guilty about yourselves and are unable to accept what mortality is all about.

I don't know if the recent popularity of Puritanical restrictions—in all the fundamentalist movements we see nowadays—is linked to the panics that traditionally develop at the end of millennia. I'm writing a novel, The Historians, about the second between the year 1999 and 2000. It describes three centuries, past, present, and future. It's really about all of history. I'm fascinated by the panic around the Western world when the year 999 became 1000. People were jumping off cliffs, slitting their wrists and so on.

Fundamentalist religions are a shield, of course. Without imagination or effort, it solves all the unanswerable questions. It pushes the responsibility somewhere else, which is what's so incredibly dangerous. Fundamentalism is also part of the anti-intellectual ethic—the denial of rationality and imagination. To be an atheist you have to have ten thousand times more imagination than if you are a religious fundamentalist. You must take the responsibility to acquire information, digest and use it to understand what you can.

Cinema is an ideal medium to do that in. It can contain metaphorical, allegorical, and literal meanings. It's the system Wagner always dreamt of, the total art form—and already it's dying, technologically and socially. The statistics in England say that in the 1950s every family used to go to the cinema at least three times a week. They hardly go three times a year now. There are other indications that we're picking at the corpse. It seems every city in the world now has a film festival. And there are thousands of critics, which is always terrifying. It's like ballet: as soon as the critics become more numerous than the dancers, you're in great danger.

No one can do anything about this death of cinema. Draughtsman's Contract was paid for by television money and I was bitterly disappointed when I saw it on a television screen. It just didn't work. But there's no use complaining. I thought cinema was a vocabulary that had all the letters of the alphabet. Television has only vowels—primary colors, simple soundtracks, large closeups, no wide shots. Keep the picture moving, don't hold a still.

It's also disastrous as a capitalist vehicle. In Great Britain, the Sixties and Seventies saw the Golden Age of television. Now we're on this slippery slope to get the highest ratings. The quality goes down; monopolies of the media are held in more and more banal hands. Attempts to be innovative, exploratory, or investigative are disappearing.

I don't want to get too carried away talking about the death of cinema because of television. Cinema is related to 2000 years of image-making in Europe. When the electronic media get switched on around the world, there will still be painting and draughtsmanship—that goes back to the caves. The continuity of the effort continues, only the tools change. If you look at painting at its prime, it is a form of visual philosophy. Its crucial elements can still happily be contained in cinema and television. Now we're into holograms and so forth, but I don't think that matters. These machines are only as good as the imagination that uses them.

Cinema is about one hundred years old. If you examine the West's large cultural movements, they all last about one hundred years. Fresco painting did, easel painting, and so on.

In the face of social or technological change, there's always alarm that the new technologies will never be what the old ones were.

Nostalgia. We're always so frightened of the new—people put wallpaper in their caravans. John Cage used to say there's a fifteen year gap between the cutting edge of culture and when even the highly educated follow on. The general public has just about caught up with Impressionism.

In Jane Austen's time, people complained that the young learned bad moral impulses from the novel. Exactly the same arguments were used in the 1920s against cinema, and again today about television. It's part of that silly “They don't make 'em like they used to” cry, or the ridiculous notion that now, today, it's worse—more decadent, more corrupt—than it ever was. Of course this is what every generation says.

I always thought my children would know what Jericho and who Hercules were. There is some indication that these two main mythologies of Western civilization are fading and need to be replaced. OK. What is replacing them? Superman? Batman? When you have no idea of what culture preceded you, you're limited to what can be invented at the moment.

On one hand, our knowledge about the past always diminishes. Content always atrophies. Poussin's paintings, for instance, are rather recherché in their classical references and most people don't know what the hell they're about. Yet we still admire and enjoy a Poussin painting. The form exists long after the content fades. On the other hand; Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions determine so much of life today—from our legal system to our buildings and streets—that if you know very little about them you inevitably know little about the forces that run your life.

How do you find the time to make films, television programs, write novels, paint?

I don't do all that much research, and what research I do gets done after the fact. I write the script and then collect the background. For example, I know only the architecture that was necessary to do Belly. I don't employ researchers. I read the architectural magazines and take what's necessary from the general culture.

My films often start with some quite minor characters whom I fantasize about and make my own. One impetus for Belly was my interest in an eighteenth century architect whom I studied marginally in art school. The other impetus was a painting by Bronzino of a man called Andrea Doria, a Genoese statesman, age 45, done in the nude. I was intrigued that this 45 year-old man of great social standing would want to have himself painted so vulnerably. I began looking for someone who looked like Andrea Doria. I was very lucky to find Brian Dennehy.

There are also certain cultural traditions that I use repeatedly in my films because they are very important to Western civilization—like Dutch painting—or because they are especially germane to my themes of order and decay, like Jacobean Theater. It was the theater looking over its shoulder at the grand Elizabethan age of exploration and comparative financial success. England is still looking over its shoulder at the loss of empire. The Jacobeans had a great sense of melancholia—think of the funereal colorations of the poetry of people like John Donne. There seems to be a parallel in contemporary Britain—a peculiar nihilistic fatalism, as if to say, “These are simply the way things are.”

I'm also interested in the theater tradition of the evil character. There are very evil characters in Draughtsman, for instance, and there are a couple of lines in Cook Thief where the thief gives away his desperate, vile identification with people like Mussolini. He keeps his tiny private army of cronies who dress up in pseudo uniforms and parade themselves very much like some swaggering, emasculated army. He associates grandiosity with the bully's figure.

Are you making a connection between dying civilizations and bullies who try to goad power where there is none?

Perhaps. Think of all those evil, late Roman emperors or those larger-than-life terrorists of the late French Revolution. Is this characteristic of late twentieth century Britain? It's certainly uncharitable to think so, though the current Tory party in Britain has made one or two adjustments in that direction.

Another tradition that reappears in my films is food and the uses of food in centuries of theater and painting. Eating tells you a great deal about people—like all those young middle class people, the yuppies, who go out to eat all the time at places where it's more important that the tomatoes match the wallpaper than it is that the food tastes good or is nourishing. They don't go out to eat so much as to show off their clothes or the way they can handle a knife, fork, and wine glass. Food is a very good way to critique the people who eat it. Today's dining critiques a society where consumerism has run riot.

Certain technical, painterly problems also keep reappearing in my work, like the problems of masking that first appeared in European table paintings—arranging people around a table so that no one is obliterated by anyone else. Or the problem of choreographing characters in the space of a film, and the physicality of bodies.

Cinema usually uses people as personalities rather than as bodies. You do see a lot of naked people but usually to reveal something about sexuality. Since I spent a lot of time drawing nudes when I was in school, I want to see the physicality of an actor, the size, the bulk, the shadow they cast on the wall. Brian Dennehy was especially good for this as the architect in Belly, where his considerable figure moves through all those fixed architectural spaces.

So there are cultural traditions and disciplines that always interest me and there are the specific triggers for a film, like the one about Andrea Doria that I mentioned.

When you publish this, will you edit for clarity and such? I'm concerned with being absolutely clear. When people sit around and talk as we have, information tends to get disorganized, so when you edit this … I do want to be clear.

David Wills and Alec McHoul (essay date spring 1991)

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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 of those examples with respect to a category that means little for us anyway. Then we can imagine or invoke forms of analysis that have been applied inter alia to those texts; for example, the Barthesian, the Genettian, the Derridean, etc. They are not mysteries. But such analyses, more and more, are treating the texts they treat not just as objects for analysis, but as means to investigate the terms of that analysis itself, and indeed of analysis in general. The tendency starts to some extent with Genette, but becomes most explicit in the work of Kristeva, Barthes, and of course Derrida. All that has been oft-repeated. And of course, it did not require a category like ‘postmodern fiction’ to elicit such inquiries into analysis; rather they are part and parcel of analysis itself, to the extent that any analysis is required to establish its own terms, whether or not it acknowledges such a task as an exercise in self-reflexivity.

The point about Peter Greenaway's film, A Zed and Two Noughts1 (henceforth AZ&00) is not that it perplexes in the way that Joyce, Pynchon, or even Duras might perplex. Its signifiers are not especially fluid, but neither is it what used to be called ‘hermetic’; it does not lack coherence that much. On the contrary, it is, if anything, too transparent, too organized; we want to say too ‘contrived.’ If we were to look for other examples we were familiar with in order to make a case for a genre, then we might quote Blue Velvet or any number of films which video outlets insist on shelving under the rubrics of ‘Midnight,’ ‘Festival’ and so on. But Blue Velvet has so many lapses into a Hollywood mould—ordinary melodrama, ordinary sexism, ordinary, more or less, narrative resolution. AZ&00 has much less of that. It remains an intellectual exercise, albeit a clever and perhaps even a gratifying one, to the end. (If not ‘from the beginning.’) Not that it doesn't have its melodrama or narrative resolution, but they are contrived within an overly intellectualist framework.

(And right away—we may not both be in entire agreement here. Perhaps AZ&00 does make emotional appeal sufficient to structure its narrative and thematics; perhaps the fact of grieving for one's wife, or failing to do so, cannot but be melodramatic, or genuinely moving, or whatever it is we might call the excess that would so threaten to disrupt the contrivances of the film. Perhaps too it is impossible to watch limbs being lost without some kind of emotional investment. But here, our disagreement would have to be a function of reading and the terms of the analysis, about which more below.)

Hence, when we say that it's difficult to know how to describe this film, we are conscious of all that we have just said. Sure, we could tell the story, or stories—we've done that before—we could, and no doubt will refer to amputation, as well as decay, grief, the alphabet, and so on. But we would still, it seems, be short of a satisfactory analysis. And we would be forced into the unenviable position of presuming that the most satisfactory analysis was the one nearest to being all-embracing, the one that discovered the film's system, and found a word for it. Analysis then, as it always threatens to do, would be reduced to a form of appropriation. But it is as if the film has already made that assumption, and made the appropriate dare, the appropriative dare. Again, it is too smart-arsed, too clever, in an intellectualist way; it is a film made with a conscious or unconscious knowledge of certain questions concerning analysis: the hermeneutic impulse for instance, the question of the alphabet and the anagram, the play of the physis/techne opposition. In this case, perhaps it could be compared to a novel by Umberto Eco or any other theoretically informed contemporary fiction. Yet we can't presume that the position of the film is quite that kosher—although only JHWH and perhaps some Italian bankers would know why we should grant that status to Eco.

Thus, whether it's because we can't establish or don't want to establish what it all adds up to, we lean towards seeing the film as contrived to the point of being vacuous. Now, unfortunately this leaves us in something of a bind, because we have heard that word vacuous before. It is usually applied to the likes of us, proponents of that ‘Paris-inspired Nietzsche-influenced school of thought that claims that there is no objective knowledge but simply interpretations and rhetorical persuasions … hermeneutics, deconstructionism, radical feminism and other trendy isms,’ as it was called recently in the New York Times. (Note that we restrict our reference here to the press in view of the level of vulgarization that ‘theory’ has by now undergone, and in view of the familiarity of the intonations repeated in every register of critical usage: we've heard the same thing from good journalists and respected colleagues.) We have even been known to address the reproach to each other, as one of us appears to the other to be dancing out of step. But we still have our set reply, and we still maintain its validity: if They can convincingly show us where fullness resides, we'll accept that idea that what we say is vacuous. Show us the ultimately objective grounds, a totally adequate discourse, a spring of eternal truth, and we'll clear off for good.

But maybe the tables have been turned here: maybe AZ&00 has occupied the ‘outer’ position, leaving us in the position of the reactionaries, calling it vacuous. In that case we are trapped, for we don't want to retreat to a conservative position, to be caught presuming to speak from a site of fullness. Yet we need to, or want to—perhaps because of this very bind—say something about the film. Hence what follows. We begin, if you will, with an ‘internalist’ analysis of three possible readings that could be made of AZ&00. The analysis deals with profilmic narrative or thematic structures only in so far as this allows us to address the film's structuring impulse, its will-to-contrivance. We call the approach ‘internalist’—albeit with hesitation—to the extent that the film is sufficiently self-reflexive, easily so, to be said to thematize, or even narrativize, contrivance. Then we proceed with two further analytic approaches that might conceivably be called more ‘externalist’ in that they try, as explicitly as possible, to deal with the film from outside its own grounds. They ask how to write something in spite of the film. But all three analyses have something of a resistance about them; they are at pains to find a grain to go against. That for two reasons: first, the film is in practice so finely grained, so organized in its lines of force, so much of a grid, that a reading which does not to some extent cut across its lines would not be a reading, in that it would not expose the grain. Second: as a matter of principle, a deconstructive principle if you insist, but in any case one with any number of theoretical pedigrees—from Althusser to Derrida—a reading needs to mark its difference to exist in the first place as a reading. It is at that point—the point of insistence on difference as the locus of meaning—that we become conservative. It is that idea that we hold to be closer to a fullness than anything else in this paper; yet it is not so much a fullness that it cannot be the subject and object of a shifting set of strategies put in play here. It is perhaps the tactic from which all our strategies are derived, and it, like anything else, gains its meaning only from the system of differences that constitute it.

In the case of AZ&00, reading against the grain tends to promote what we have called ‘externalist’ more than ‘internalist’ approaches. Inside, the film is well sewn-up, though it may simply be that our analysis has not been up to the task, that we have shrunk from a refining of the systematic tools, out of cowardice or from a fear of the appropriative gesture that seems to be required. Yet even our most resistive readings cannot avoid having something of a will-to-mastery about them, a desire to take discussion of the film into a realm that it seems to preclude, or to engage in a game of oneupmanship with the fact of contrivance. It is here that the antagonisms of our own text become important, as functions of an exercise in collective authorship. We know of no more important principle or tactic for reading than that which practises multiple readings. Reading, it seems to us, gains much from becoming a matter of rehearsing a number of readings. Only by displaying its difference will reading come to have meaning.


There is a tension in poststructuralist thought between on the one hand its promotion of what Barthes calls jouissance—shorthand here for a variety of practices that exploit criticism as a writing—and on the other hand its attention to the ‘serious’ detail of western philosophy and the critique of metaphysics. The tension surrounds the notion of ‘seriousness’: the idea that play, and a whole range of other concepts which are formed around the absence of a central grounding for theory, should be taken as ‘serious’ contenders against those traditional philosophical concepts which do offer definite theoretical grounds. Up to now we have alluded to this tension in terms of the vacuous and the full—despite problems with that type of notation. And, as we have seen, too, the way the tension is framed for us in the case of AZ&00 is by the idea of its contrivances.

This is perhaps because the notion of ‘contrivance,’ in AZ&00 especially, is not unaffected by the problematics of difference. How can the term have meaning in the context of poststructuralist critical theory when candidates for its opposite (its other) are concepts which are effectively ruled out, in and by that very context? These concepts would be such things as ‘the authentic’ and ‘the natural.’ Everything would, in some senses, have to come under the rubric of contrivance—so when would the difference lie? However, AZ&00, on pretty much any reading appears to be more contrived than many a text—fraught with contrivance, predicated upon it even. For example it appears highly ‘staged almost like an opera or tableau vivant. It is also contrived in the sense that it brings off repeated, clever and obvious conjunctures between ‘conceptual’ elements some of which are not normally so conjoined except as opposites. This is one of the reasons why we write of the film's intellectualism. For example, there are contrived associations:


The twins start with an Apple decaying and move on to a Zebra: and beyond. The alphabet comes to stand for a teleological ordering principle (even though its ordering—unlike the ordering of numbers—is arbitrary), somewhat akin to the kind of teleology which some bio-evolutionists find in nature. In some other Greenaway films (particularly, Drowning by Numbers) ordering principles which are routinely associated with nature (or at lease with scientific and arithmetical discourses on nature) come to be associated with socio-cultural forms and practices. In AZ&00 the association is reversed: the natural process of decay and evolutionary change is imbricated with the convention of the alphabet.


The animate (people and animals) are normally associated with symmetry. Says Van Meegeren: ‘Animals on the whole are designed with a view to symmetry. One of decay's first characteristics is to spoil that symmetry.’ But this is so only up to a point. That is, individual bodies are relatively symmetrical, but the arrangement of more than a single body—a social arrangement, perhaps—is rarely symmetrical. It only comes to be so under specially contrived circumstances like synchronized swimming, ballet and so on. And that is precisely what AZ&00 offers, particularly in the partially frozen scenes in Alba's bedroom, with the twins to her left and right: a tableau with attemptedly perfect mirror-image symmetry. But being so frozen, preserved from decay, perhaps, they cease to be animated. And we may come to wonder whether it is symmetry and not asymmetry which is properly associated with the animate after all. To add to this, the ‘progressions’ within the film move at cross purposes. Alba moves from being a whole body to a one-legged body to a legless body to a corpse. The twins move, on the other hand, from being distinct persons to being brothers, to being twins, to being Siamese twins—a single person in effect—before they also die.


The zoo's resident prostitute, Venus de Milo, likes to show pandas to the visitors. She peddles much less her sex than she does her other talents: for story-telling and sewing, though these two also emerge as parallel crafts, to some extent. She sells her stories to the twins: sitting nude on Oliver's bed as he plays with his snails, or else wearing Oswald's wife's décolleté gown while he sits to one side and listens. But what she really wants to sell is the publication rights to her stories: an ambition which works out for her during the film to some extent. Her model is Anaïs Nin: and she has calculated the rate-per-word Nin was paid for her erotic tales. Evidently, then, there is an economy to narratives and to sexuality, just as there is to stitching. As Venus stitches up a Siamese-twin suit for Oswald and Oliver, stitching them together (as they are through the narrative of the film), so Van Meegeren, the surgeon, stitches up Alba, not just following surgery on her legs but also to the music stool she sits on in order to mock up his Vermeer painting. Hence:


Alba says: ‘I'm an excuse for medical experiments, and art theory. Look, I'm stitched and sewn to the music stool.’ So hence also:


The film, not only via the almost frozen frames in Alba's bedroom, but more explicitly in terms of the Vermeer aspects of the narrative and the reconstruction of several well-known examples of still life, contrives to make its status as a contribution to visual art somewhat overly obvious. For example, just as this was achieved in Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract through the use of an artist's grid laid across the profilmic landscape, in AZ&00 the effect is achieved in terms of the grid against which the decaying life-forms are shot for the purpose of time-lapse photography.


The film repeatedly and extensively uses scenes from Attenborough's TV documentary, Life on Earth and we are led to believe that this is one way in which the twins are searching for a ‘meaning’ for the death of their wives. So a popular scientific approach to biological evolution becomes a means of dealing with grief. Oliver in particular seems to believe that a hermeneutic approach to the documentary (looking for clues, omitting the red herrings) will give him a scientific solution to the occurrence of death and decay. The problem is that the categories of evolution and decay can be seen as parallel, but they can also be construed as opposites. Hence:


For example, there is the car accident at the start of the film in which the wives are killed. This can't be explained in terms of the western empiricist modes and structures the twins opt for. How it happened is documented: an egg-bound white swan, perhaps from the zoo, strays in front of the car which duly swerves to avoid it. But why it happened is not scientifically explicable. Nevertheless, the twins' will-to-explain ties their grief to a scientific mode of explanation, leading them to Alba Bewick (whom they like to think of as the deathswan herself) and hence giving them a responsible subject to interrogate. But all they find is another arbitrary principle: that of the alphabet which motivates Alba herself who wants to have a child corresponding to each letter in the Greek alphabet.


For example, as we have seen, the film's own frame symmetry as well as that of the twins' time-lapse films stands as a principle against which to measure or think the processes of nature: decay and evolution. Alba says: ‘What's the point of watching me, my body's only half here?’; to which the answer is, ‘You'll fit better into the film frame.’ She adds: ‘A fine epitaph: here lies a body cut down to fit the picture.’ Sometimes the natural is thwarted by the artificial: the twins want to maintain their natural paternity against the contrivance that Felipe is the father. Sometimes the reverse: in the final scene the artificial is thwarted by the natural when a low-life form, the snails, destroy the artifice of the camera and the time-lapse technique.


Sometimes the zoo figures as a place for watching, imitation, pleasure. It appears as a scene for mindless pleasures; a certain kind of vacuity even. Yet it most often appears at night like a kind of unpopulated mausoleum. You need special keys to get in, or else you need stealth and the help of insider trading: ‘Do you have a flat piece of plastic and a pencil?—you are well-equipped,’ says Venus on at least two such occasions. The special equipment extends to the elaborate laboratories of the twins—‘animal behaviourists’—who keep detailed records of the decay-processes of various life-forms, fruit, animals … people. But sometimes the ‘lightheartedness’ of the zoo-goer gets transferred on to these more serious (if ghoulish) scientific practices. In particular, speeded-up fairground music is the constant form of accompaniment on the soundtrack when the time-lapse pieces are played back or, perhaps, quoted within the frame of AZ&00. And, parallel to this, there is a ‘serious’ side to the pleasure of the zoo: a sinister set of controlling figures whose interests are hard to explain, including Van Hoyten, the keeper (Joshua Plate) and the zoo-manager (Fallast). The lightest and funniest scenes are, then, accompanied by a slow, heart-rhythm-based type of music associated in films with dire consequence. Again, what we might call the ‘valencies’ of each side of the double-associations appear to swap over in a kind of cancellation so that the film may be saying, in both senses, nothing of particular value.

So, one thing we might ask is how such contrivance is brought off if its opposite/other is not clearly available. The first contending interpretation might be as follows: the film quite simply asserts a romanticist conception of the natural as the authentic. This would be, for example, how we would interpret the role of the place called ‘Escargot’ which is first shown in a frame of its own, literally. It is beyond the regularly claustrophobic confines of the film, in the country, a ‘traditional,’ possibly even ancestral home and garden. It might be read as a kind of Eden, or some other place of the Return. Other allusions to the natural and to evolution could be read this way too: for example the use of the body, nudity and the ‘innocence’ of (at least some) animals. On this first reading, AZ&00 would emerge as, ultimately, not a postmodern film at all—but as one which affirms, against postmodernism, a modernist or existential notion of romantic authenticity.

A second contending interpretation of the film's contrivance could run as follows: these just-mentioned allusions to a domain which appears natural and outside the space of contrivance are themselves contrived: they are contrived only to give contrivance itself an opposite and therefore a meaning. They are a kind of red herring—the kind which Oliver himself mentions early in the film when watching the Attenborough documentary. The fact that it is the Attenborough which is being referred to here might be something which gives us a clue—for it is one of the main points at which a definite discourse on ‘the natural’ is inserted into the film. In this case ‘the natural’ (which gives contrivance its opposite and its meaning) is in fact only another film, only a quotation or citation of the natural—as indeed it must be. It is like the ‘natural look’ in make-up—which is a form of make-up none the less.

On the first of these two readings, you'd have to say that the zoo is synecdochal of postmodern society and that persons in that society are like zoo animals, pacing up and down. They appear to have lost their ‘natural habitat’ and are grieving for it. That habitat, in the case of ‘man,’ is nature itself: an authentic, non-ideologized existence: ‘Escargot.’ This explains the theme of grief in the film: the grief of the two brothers for their dead wives, making the figure of woman/wife into the figure of lost nature. It would also explain their concern over the paternity of the twin babies—since to call Felipe Arc-en-Ciel the father denies ‘natural parenthood.’ (Though to be sure, double paternity itself seems more contrived than natural.) It would also mean that such matters as death and decay (which the brothers are trying unsuccessfully to film using time-lapse photography) are ultimately natural and cannot be staved off by synthetic means.

On the second reading, these equations between the zoo and postmodern society as a whole would themselves be drastically undercut as a contrivance. The film, on this reading, would be taking an ironical position on the matter: showing that even the separation between nature and culture is a cultural contrivance. The idea of wife/woman representing authenticity would, for example, be undercut by reading Alba Bewick as the fountainhead of contrivance. Although a woman herself, she would be read as the ‘cause’ of the wives' death since, as we have said, she is identified with the swan (hence her name) which perhaps caused the wives' car to run off the road. And given the interest that at least Oliver, if not the film itself, shows in her name and in connecting it to the accident, then it becomes almost as if it were the convention (or accident) of a name, rather than any scientific notion of cause and effect, that brought about the wives' demise. (‘The wives of two zoologists die in a car driven by a woman called Bewick who's attacked by a swan on Swann's Way!’) Thus by no means all women (and later Alba takes on the role of wife for the twins, also) and by no means all animals are innocent. On this reading, the film would be allowed a little more critical space and scope. It would emerge as a more clearly postmodern film since it would be seen to eschew romanticism and to decentre notions such as ‘nature’ and ‘authenticity,’ leaving questions of interpretation more open, indeterminate. This is in a sense where our analysis begins: identifying the ‘system’ of contrivance, but being unable to determine which way, or in favour of what, such a system operates.

Hence, there is a problem with this second reading. It has to do with the fact that contrivance or inauthenticity threatens to turn into a monolithic concept in its own right: against the grain of this reading itself. It threatens to become a kind of centre or fullness which the second reading was working hard to displace. For example, we could note, in this regard, the initial differences between the twins on the question of women: the fact that at least one of them—Oswald—is quite openly misogynistic while the other—Oliver—is an explorer or detective. He is interested in women in the sense that he wants to find out about them in a somewhat appropriative way. So if such a difference can be established between the twins, it would amount to a split story (conte/rived) or schism. Their problem is to know whether their difference (how they begin the film) or else their sameness (how they end it) constitutes their ‘authenticity.’ And this might be read as analogous to two different theories of meaning: does meaning arise by means of identity or because of difference? The twins start off the movie looking and acting very differently. To continue with examples: they have different coloured hair; one appears to weigh a fair bit more than the other; they treat Venus de Milo's stories/narratives quite differently—one preferring the énoncé and the other the énonciation—and so on. Later, as they reveal that they are not only brothers but twins and, eventually, Siamese twins—one person with too many limbs—they come to resemble each other a good deal more. Eventually they become identical with each other and meet their end. So we might say that the differences between them (misogyny vs. curiosity, for instance) are shown, ultimately, to be the same (for example, as different tensions of patriarchy)—that meaning resides in self-identity (in ‘a thing's identity with itself’ as some logicians have called it) rather than in difference. In this sense, and by now we have effectively a third reading of contrivance stemming out of problems with the second, the film's position could be that nothing—contrivance included—actually needs an opposite in order to be significant. In the final analysis, it simply needs itself. In this case, it appears as if the film plays, not just within, but also with, a theory of difference, but ends up rejecting it in favour of an identity-based theory of meaning. On this reading, it would be a highly conservative film but by no means pretheoretical: a rare example of reactionary intelligence.

A further question would be: how to choose between these two or three readings? What difference does it make? Would the film look different if only one reading were selected? Can a film be read in more than one way at a time, if the contending readings contradict one another yet can be ‘supported’ by the same profilmic evidence? Is it possible that the demise of structuralism and its binaristic principle could mean that two contradictory propositions (about the film, for example) can be held at the same time? Like Venus de Milo's repeated phrase, ‘You are well equipped,’ mentioned above, which the first time means ‘what it says’ and the second time means its opposite. But it consists of the same words. Once we can no longer have faith in the self-evidence of language's inner workings (here intonation), nor in the saturability of context (the twins' answer to her question had been ‘no,’ Van Hoyten's is ‘yes,’ thus we understand Venus' statement as affirmatively reinforcing his competence), then can we really be sure where the true sense lies? Could we have just answered ‘yes’ to our own question—that we did understand as we ought? On the other hand, could we maintain the opposite? For the film has certainly done plenty to draw attention to the play of words; it does so by the very fact of Venus' repetition. Given the sexual interest she has in the twins, and her lack of interest in Van Hoyten, then could her reference to equipment be affirmative in their case and negative for him? So does an assertion of difference as the locus of meaning ‘defeat’ standard logics, in this sense, or does it propose an alternative logic—one which does not exclude contradiction and paradox? One which would allow a number of readings to stand against each other and against the film?


If so …


OK, I promise. No stories, not about wooden legs, nor summer in Paris trying to catch up on Peter Greenaway films with the best intentions and always missing them, or bits of them. Like the beginning of this one, AZ&00. Let's just say there was an accident which meant that the first five minutes of the film were missing. More than missing, cut off. So that the first image is that of Alba in bed with one leg, flanked by Oliver and Oswald. You say that I missed all sorts of structural set-ups in those first five minutes. But I say that I didn't miss anything, nothing that wasn't set up throughout the rest of the film. I guess I missed some images, some obvious ones, some ambiguous ones, maybe some moving ones. But it's hard to know to what extent I can therefore be said to have seen a different film, hard to know to what extent that might be important. (Controlled experiment: have someone watch all but the last five minutes, or all but any five minutes, and ask the same questions. And for that matter, up to what point in the film could one ‘avoid seeing it’?) But what for, why be so silly?

Two reasons. First: it's a contrivance, a simple, yet effective one, one that neither AZ&00 nor Peter Greenaway can foresee or control. One that is definitely not in the film, although the idea for it might be. It is reasonably resolutely independent of the film's tight system. That is to say that however much the film might have accident and amputation as its central premise, its treatment of them is still, as we have emphasized, contrived in the extreme. This idea of missing a bit, on the other hand, however contrived it might in turn be, recognizes, or reinforces, the idea of loss as irretrievability beyond the control of the film. (Still, I can hear the objection, by resorting to a further contrivance to exploit loss beyond the control of the film, one does not for all that escape the film's own thematic structure of contrivance, thus one still remains as it were within its ambit. There is no escape, in fact; at least no more or less than with any other text. There is no utter otherness from a given text, especially as long as one wants to write about it.)

So the film begins with accident and loss; one doesn't have to see the first five minutes to know that. And throughout the rest of its tight structure, it seems two ways of repairing, or accounting for, that loss are put into play. Two ways that I might call creationist on the one hand, and evolutionist on the other.

Alba, or at least her body, refuses the further contrivances of artificial legs; instead she replaces her loss with the two babies she gives birth to. We see the twins place them on the bed where her legs should be. She thus avoids the bind of the whore of Marseille, who refused prosthetic legs all her life, only to have them thrust upon her in death. By finding her Felipe Arc-en-Ciel and giving birth to twins, Alba gains the promise of no further catastrophe and arranges her death and burial as she would have them. She works within a somewhat mystical system with her references to the deluge, the ark, and the rainbow. ‘Her’ animal is the swan, a common poetic symbol often evocative of the prelapsarian. ‘I have to find a Felipe Arc-en-Ciel to stop my crying’ she says early on, and later: ‘They went in in twos and they came out in twos. It's stopped raining. I've found my arc-en-ciel.’ It matters little that the story of the whore of Marseille is one she has made up, for once she has created it, there is nothing to stop it taking its place within the logic and teleology of the film's diegesis. As we have seen, in this film facts are narrated facts, difficult to distinguish from fiction. So Alba seems to stand for the remedying of loss by the ‘miracle’ of renewal, of a finally benevolent nature. Oliver and Oswald, on the other hand, counter the notion of loss with that of decay, another supposedly natural process. Perhaps the scientific, masculine or evolutionist one. They think that by studying the progressive evolution and decay of the species, or of a variety of species, they will be able to inscribe the loss of their wives within a natural order which functions according to evolutionary principles. In the same way, their freeing of the zoo animals, however badly thought through, as Fallast points out, turns a loss for the zoo or the human order, into a gain for the environment in which nature takes care of itself, follows its own laws of selection, survival and so on.

Thus there is a sense of irretrievable loss to be reinstated, artificially so, in the absence of the film's first few minutes. It ruins all the finely constructed teleological series, and also displaces the theme of mourning. In the film, at least in the print I saw, there is none, no public ritual of mourning, no social status for grief. There are only the private deliria of the twins. But it might be possible to displace the idea of loss from the film to cinema, from the individual and private consumption of the film-text to the public experience of cinema in its industrial reality. One might mourn what is irretrievably lost from cinema: the theatres in Paris, or anywhere else, now numbering so few, that show films like this one, which means that the chance of missing the first five minutes, losing oneself in a quartier invaded by tourists and fast-food joints, and of never being able to see the film again or having to organize one's whole programme because it is only going to show once at some impossible time every week, all that likelihood is greatly increased. One might mourn the ‘loss’ or still birth of films such as those by Peter Greenaway in that they barely get a showing at all in most of the cinematic world, even the Western cinematic world that gives rise to them. Such losses can be considered to exist within the natural order of cinema, its natural evolution, or as a fact of the desire for popular art which created cinema and insured that any sort of ‘avant-garde’ would be short-lived within it; yet we know from either point of view how contrived the history of cinema has been. This gesture of writing about AZ&00 may have about it something of a desire to retrieve a species threatened with extinction within the later history of cinema; but my insistence on the missing first five minutes, and running out of breath through supposedly familiar streets that suddenly changed on me when I turned my back and had me arriving late at the theatre, that is an attempt to write and reinforce loss and discontinuity as an always-already of cinema.

This is a simple fact of economics, the economics of capitalist consumerism, which cinema has obeyed and refined, more and more so in the last ten years as it has become almost completely monolithic. Probably the only other cinema in a healthier state than Hollywood is Hindi film. Yet that refining by cinema of a capitalist consumer economy has been going hand in hand with the monolithic refinements of capitalism in general over the last few years, being completely caught up within the cycle of buyouts, leveraged or otherwise, that has left post-industrial capitalism—at least the American version, which is what we are talking about here—both more triumphant and more teetering than ever before. After the food business, the entertainment/communications conglomerates have been the objects of the greatest mergers. All this would fit within an evolutionary model of economics, which is exactly what the market economy represents, replacing a creationist model according to which it is the land which spontaneously gives birth to wealth and prosperity. We can see all the ironies this packman capitalism produces in something like Sony's buyout of Columbia. How they scramble to make it fit the existing models, by either inveighing against the perceived xenophobia of the Japanese to make their own century of cultural colonization seem less ominous, or hoping like Ronald Reagan that the Japanese will succeed where America has failed in returning the cinema to its original wholesomeness. (Though where admiration for Rambo fits in is hard to say.) Either reaction works to re-establish the natural order of cinematic evolution. But running parallel to buyouts and mergers are threats of and flirts with a crash, with cinema being tied ever more closely into the instabilities and unpredictabilities of an economy whose principles are yet to be written, what we might call an economics of sudden loss or amputation.

But there is a more specific sense in which the economics of cinema is tied to functions of loss, and here I come to my second reason for the contrivance of missing a bit. A certain history of film analysis, perhaps the entire history of what might be called serious film analysis represented by semiotics, relies upon the possibility of intervening in the material conditions of film consumption; that is to say upon the possibility of controlling the running of the film by means of review, pause, cueing etc. In other words upon the emergence of video, given that access to an editing table always remained limited even for those writing on film. This capacity was conceived of as striking a blow for film as discontinuity against those, often filmmakers, who wanted their films to be treated as intact entities exempt from such fragmentation. Video, which from one point of view was instrumental in shrinking the film market, greatly expanded the market of film criticism. Yet that criticism, while claiming allegiance to a conception of film as discontinuity, tended in practice to reinforce the idea of the text as a totality, as an entity to be grasped in its very detail by the analyst. Missing bits of film on the other hand doesn't mean returning to analysis which is at the mercy of one particular form of film-viewing, but promotes analysis of the fragment and the fragmentary. The type of image which video in its relations to television has given us is after all the video-clip, and it is a clipped film that we often view with our VCRs. Yet such images remain very much the other of cinema, given, in all but a few examples, to indulgence in the relatively slow caress of the camera. There is a tendency to inveigh in turn against the majority of rock videos, for their banal or simplistic conception, amateurish direction, and so on. But they do treat the fragmentary nature of the image that the majority of cinema continues to repress. I don't think I'm about to start writing on them instead of, for instance, AZ&00. But perhaps part of learning how to read film, learning more, learning again, learning for a future, is to learn not to watch, and to learn what that might mean.

Or watch what we missed, what was missing. In the end, I may or may not have, may or may not have had to, for whatever reason. In any case, if I'd arrived much later than I did, I might have missed Alba's strange comment about her sexual organs: ‘That's pretty redundant, except to pee through.’ Then I might not have been able to point out how the difference between the creationist and evolutionist is reduced when it comes to the difference between the alphabet and numbering systems. Alba's sex is a null set, she less than zero. But her comment is out of character; you might say it just means that she wants some, for she has already told the tale of the whore of Marseille for whom amputation was the opposite of an impediment, and she will go on to quite successfully seduce both twins and give birth to two more. So much for redundancy. Then again, we used to represent the empty set by a Greek letter—phi—also the letter for philosophy. All the numbers have corresponding Greek letters. One and the same system, that of ordering, the alphabetical and the numerical. The grammatical nonsense and the logical impossibility, both numerical infractions: ‘We are the father. … Bad grammar doesn't signify anything.’ Alba in general refers to the alphabet, mostly the Greek. She will have twenty-six children, one for each letter, and ask—with her usual confidence that it is the alphabetical act of naming that brings into being—whether Greek letters have a sex. But it is Latin which has twenty-six letters, Greek only twenty-three, we are told. Well that depends how you count. She, with her children, will create and arrange the letters as creatively as she wishes; just as Van Meegeren creatively increases the number of paintings by Vermeer (twenty-six, but three of those were dubious). The twins plot and photograph decay from an Apple to a Zebra, and beyond; they reduce the alphabet to a purely numerical series, a teleological stricture akin to the evolutionary process. What counts for them in the alphabet is nothing more than its progressive effect, the fact that one letter necessarily ensues from the last, and entails the next. The danger in altering the number of letters is precisely that the order might come to be interfered with.

But perhaps they misjudge. Perhaps there is something to the alphabet beyond Alba's litter of letters or their ordering system, perhaps writing. We could have made something big of it, the way the film invites us to, right down to some idea of the anagrammatical. We see the letters change places in the film as a neon ‘zoo’ becomes ‘ooz,’ and we can read in it the animals' decay. But whichever way you read it, it makes a title, a zed and two noughts. AZ&00. It is spoken also in the film, by Alba, she the A become Zed, Oliver and Oswald the two noughts. But for a reading of loss the title is less than that, less than the idea that the generator Alba has skipped her hopes for something after Beta and is about to end it all in whatever language you choose; that the twins are shrinking progressively back to their origins, and so on and so forth. Fewer than any of that. For loss, AZ&00 is writing, and anagrammatical writing, reduced to a digital order, the on & off of A & Z, of AZ & 00, of letters & numbers, or any of the differences referred to above, the rest any number of nullity. Which means the alphabet expanded to all manner of strokes and blips that come into play, well beyond what might be called the diacritical, once it is really put to use; which means difference working through an ampersand. & less still, down to zero, the whole thing trying to start over with a new series.

Starting with a character for every minute missed.


‘Oh, why do we have to go to the zoo?’—you may well ask. And I would say: as therapy—for the film and for the world of AZ&00. To get outside that text and maybe this one. To see if there is an ‘outside the text.’ You wanted to go without—miss bits, drop the first five minutes. Now I want to go without—outside, to the zoo. I insist you come. I'll pay. It's work—perhaps I can claim it on tax?

For example, one point of the therapy is to see that some of the film's conceits are deceptions. For example Van Hoyten asks, ironizing the philosopher, whether a zebra is a black beast with white stripes or a white beast with black stripes. So we go to the zoo. Just a glance at a zebra will tell you which: it's unarguably the latter, at first sight. There is no mystery; nothing is hidden. The problem is a conundrum designed by the film to poke fun at sophistry—but the irony fails by a refusal to think through the problem, by insisting on a solution rather than a dissolution—by seeing how hollow it is (a hollow-gram) in the face of another set of markings, another ‘text’ if you like: in my case, the zebra in Audubon Park. Philosophy, it is true, may need less sophistry, fewer silly questions, less metaphysics: but anti-philosophy (which, on at least one reading, AZ&00 is) might do better than simply repeat the sophistry with an added ironical tone. Both would do better by going to the zoo and taking a look: not necessarily a pretheoretical, uninformed, naïve or empiricist look, however. In fact, by no means that kind of look at all.

At the zoo, for example, you can get a strange sense of indeterminacy as you(r) look. You are in the presence of the ‘actual animals’ and you are not—at the same time. Same film, two readings. Just 3 feet away, across a wall, its eyes level with yours, is an unarguably real white tiger. You can see the meniscus of spittle across its mouth as it yawns. It is not a film. You can see where its claws have drawn blood from fresh meat. It is not a drawing. It is not a quotation or citation of a tiger. It's a fucking tiger!

But it's also not. It's not a tiger in the place that tigers do and should occur. This is the tragedy—the displacement—of zoos. It's why a lot of people don't like to visit zoos, even if they're not exactly romantics or animal liberationists. And I'm certainly not one—‘stick a fork in its ass and turn it over, it's cooked’ is my attitude to animals. They don't want to see giraffes plodding around in a pen when, somehow, part of being a giraffe is that they should be getting up to 40-odd mph and bashing a way through the bush, looking for new growth on new trees, way up high. Without that—and lots of other stuff—they just aren't giraffes. Close your eyes and you can't even tell they're there—not a sound—for the zoo giraffe is the very emblem of anti-phonocentrism. It has no vocal chords and can't run, being penned in. So that's why animals in zoos aren't quite ‘the real animals’ and it's also why they're not quite pictures or representations either.

They appear to exist, as it were, half way between the sign (a picture, a definition) and the referent. Zoo animals are parergonal in this sense—especially if we remember that animals are, if anything is, the original referents, having been represented from the very first moment of representational history. Zoo animals exist on and as the oblique slash between an animal and its representation. In some cultures this positioning is associated with ‘ghosts’: neither the thing nor its mere image—between the two (worlds). The ghost is a remainder: something left over from either the sign or its referent, something left behind. It is an excess (if only a slight one) and, as such, speaks against the amputationism of AZ&00. If there is something missing from zoo animals (pace Greenaway's gorilla with its missing leg) it is not, then, something so simple as a limb.

We might like to think of the Greenaway amputations as synecdochal of what is missing from zoo animals: but this would be very kind to the film. What it seems to miss—via the contrivance of the amputation—is the fact that the ‘missing thing’ always turns paradoxically into an addition or surplus: the slash between sign and referent which commands attention in the case of zoo animals; which is the (invisible) punctum of zoo animals; but not of either ‘real’ (wild) animals or of pictures of animals—necessarily including AZ&00.

This then leaves us with two points which may appear contradictory but which are not—and which are not in important ways. That is: we go to the zoo in order to check out the misleading philosophical conundrums, in order to dissolve them with a look, let the fly out of the fly-bottle and so on. But, at the same time, what allows us to do this is invisible: it is the space or spacing between the zebra and its picture. So we seem to have an empiricism (‘go to the zoo, have a look, see if it's true what they say in theory …’) which is effective precisely because of something which is not available to the sense organs or to technical extensions of them (microscopes, telescopes, etc.). And that, given any definition of empiricism, is as contradictory as it's possible to be.

Or is it? Perhaps instead we could think of classical empiricism as having been allowed to colonize and appropriate all forms of the look, of looking in general, and to get away with it, scot free. Why have we just stood by and (not) watched? Why have we granted the monopoly on looking to the empiricists? Preponderantly we go along with them and mean, by ‘looking,’ a literal inspection using human eyesight. This is what Baconian empiricism intended by ‘looking’—looking at (and only at) the presences available to the eyesight. But this neglects the fact that in looking, in any form of looking, one must necessarily be aware of matters which are absent. (And this is true for hearing and other senses too: for example hearing that the giraffe is silent.) The presences make no sense otherwise. And the particular case of looking at zoo animals only heightens this requirement of looking in general. So ‘look’ becomes, necessarily, non-literal. Its so-called ‘ordinary language meaning’ always includes what is, for classical empiricism, an impossibility—namely, looking at what is not there. In your case, the first five minutes. Looking is not—cannot be—immune from the requirement of difference. And, remembering this, I can begin to advocate a kind of counter-empiricism, in order to get outside the text of AZ&00. It is a counter-empiricism because it offers a therapy to regular varieties of empiricism: reminding them of the critical differences that always already lurk in and around their realist certitudes about the human senses and the relation of the senses to the world. But it is still an empiricism of sorts: something as simple as going to the zoo to zero-in on the zebra conundrum and seeing how seeing this takes us, immediately, beyond the zero. And it is an empiricism, too, in the sense that while it depends upon and asserts the value of critical theory, it stridently rejects any vulgarization of theory by showing and remembering the limits of any mere (pretentious, intellectualist) theoreticism.


  1. A Zed and Two Noughts. A film by Peter Greenaway. Produced by Peter Sainsbury and Kees Kasander. Written and directed by Peter Greenaway. BFI/A11 Arts/Artificial Eye/Film Four International, 1985.

Peter Greenaway and Adam Barker (interview date May 1991)

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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 not in doubt is Greenaway's achievement. Producing a regular stream of low-budget movies, from early shorts such as H is for House (1976) to The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), he has made one of the most challenging bodies of work in post-war British cinema.

In person, Greenaway is a far cry from the malicious manipulator which his work might suggest. Quiet, courteous and amiable, he speaks with practised eloquence. But despite his willingness to expound on the ramifications of his densely packed work—and to admit to its failings—it is hard to avoid feeling that his fluency is ultimately unsatisfactory. When asked to consider the personal roots of his work, Greenaway is at first unexpectedly reticent, and then skillfully guides the conversation back to safer ground.

This interview was conducted over three days in Greenaway's spartan Hammersmith production offices—more reminiscent of a workshop than a film studio. The setting reflects his artisanal approach to film-making, where as far as possible the money goes on the screen rather than on the extravagant trappings of the film industry.

Greenaway is hard at work editing his new movie in time for Cannes. Prospero's Books, as it is known, is a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest starring John Gielgud. Shakespeare's play centres on Prospero, Duke of Milan, who has been deposed by his brother, Antonio, supported by Alonso, King of Naples, and now lives on an island with his daughter, Miranda. Opening with a storm in which the corrupt brother and his courtiers are shipwrecked on the island through Prospero's magic, The Tempest shows Prospero's staging of an action in which he intends to take his revenge on his usurping brother.

Initially approached by Gielgud, who has cherished the idea of putting the enigmatic drama on screen for some time, Greenaway rapidly transformed the play into his own idiosyncratic vision. The film picks up on a brief mention in the text of 24 books from his library which Prospero is permitted to take into exile. These desert island volumes become an abstract counterpoint to the story, like the number count from one to 100 in Drowning by Numbers. While remaining faithful to Shakespeare's text, Greenaway has put the words of all the characters into Prospero's mouth for the first two-thirds of the film.

The results—if the unfinished editing copy I was allowed to see is anything to go by—are fascinating, and sure to polarise viewers of Greenaway's work even more than any of his previous films.

One of the reasons we have called the film Prospero's Books rather than The Tempest is to indicate to an audience that it is not a straight attempt to reproduce a familiar text. One of my many interests was to pursue the 24 books that Gonzales, Prospero's loyal courtier, supposedly put into the bottom of the leaky vessel in which Prospero was sent out into exile. That idea, I suppose, really holds the material together.

And it seemed quite logical from there to consider The Tempest very much as a text, as something written. So what happened in the end is that I made the twenty-fourth book The Tempest itself. So the whole film is structured around the idea of Shakespeare/Prospero (Gielgud) sitting in his cell on the island writing the play that you see.

The first word of the play is “Bosun,” which is a very interesting word because it is one that is never written down. It was used by seamen who were basically illiterate, so that when they came to write the word down it was “boat-swain.” It's a nice opening point about the topsy-turvy use of oral and written language.

So the film opens with Gielgud sitting at his desk experimenting with the word “Bosun,” and you see it written up on the screen many times. The evocation of that word in conjunction with the first book of the film, which is the Book of Water, supposedly put together by Leonardo da Vinci, sets the film off. Right at the beginning, then, the audience knows we are at the origins of the play, and I make no attempt at straight illusionism.

At the end of the film the books are all destroyed. What happens, then, is that the apocryphal books—which of course never exist—are created in the first minute and destroyed in the last minute of a two-hour film. They are there only for the film, which I think is an intriguing idea.

[Barker:] Following this so far? Good. Because it gets worse. In addition to the labyrinthine complexity of its narrative, Prospero's Books is visually the most dense of Greenaway's films, thanks largely to the first extensive use of high definition television (HDTV) processes for the big screen. HDTV uses twice as many lines as conventional television to achieve better resolution, higher contrast and a wider range of colours. The resulting image—which also has a wide, cinema-like screen ratio—can be manipulated using all the sophisticated techniques of video editing: slow motion, superimposition, and animation.

Shot on 35mm film, Prospero's Books is being edited using a combination of conventional film techniques and television post-production. Greenaway has edited three separate versions of the film which run in parallel and will ultimately be mixed together into a single two-hour narrative. He has spent a month in Japan using state-of-the-art HDTV editing facilities provided by the television company NHK. In order to test the potential of the technology, NHK contributed about £2 million worth of editing time free of charge (representing more than the entire production budget of about £1.5 million).

The high definition techniques—also being used by Wim Wenders for his forthcoming road movie Until the End of the World—allow Greenaway to unite the sumptuous cinematography evident in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover with the sophisticated image manipulation of his television production of Dante's Inferno. Greenaway is wary of the film being seen as a “technological freak,” but believes he has only scratched the surface of the technical possibilities.

[Greenaway:] Working in conjunction with Tom Phillips on A TV Dante, there seemed to be a way through television to engender a whole series of new ways of making pictures, which I was much more familiar with in terms of painting and draughtsmanship than I was with cinema. It was an ability primarily to reorganise the screen ratio, to play with colour in a way you can't in the cinema, and to extend and reshape the elements of the pictorial imagination, which you can do easily in painting. There was a time when I believed that the cinema had an ability to use all the letters of the alphabet and TV could only use the vowels. I don't believe that to be the case any more; I think TV has its own vocabulary, its own alphabet. So what I wanted to do in Prospero's Books is to make the first tentative steps towards an expanded cinema which uses television vocabulary but still hangs on to the cinematic idea of creating images which are bigger, noisier, louder, more engulfing than you are.

It's a terrible admission to make, but I do feel for me that cinema has somehow ceased to be a spectator sport. I get tremendous excitement out of making it rather than out of watching it. I suppose on another level it is like trying to regain those first days of the cinema when the audience rushed out because they thought that the waves coming in were going to wet their feet.

Whatever Greenaway has done, he has been the subject of sceptical enquiry. He began his career as a painter but was always being told that his work was “too literary.” As an experimental filmmaker in the 70s, his affection for elaborate, elusive story-telling—as seen in A Walk through H—led him into conflict with the prevailing non-narrative approach of structuralist filmmakers like Peter Gidal.

With Greenaway's shift into feature films in The Draughtsman's Contract, a new worry emerged: was Greenaway interested enough in the conventional concerns of drama—character, events and emotion?

Most of the films originate essentially as ideas—not as events, not as pieces of narrative, not as a desire to express a character. I have always admired, even if I cannot emulate, those people who manage to engender their cinema from the ground up—someone like Godard, for example, whose ideas appear in his imagination already as pieces of cinema and then simply have to be realised.

It differs from film to film, but for me the starting-point is a set of ideas—or maybe ideas is too strong, a set of notions. Belly of an Architect, for example, came about because I wanted to consider the ideas that were current in Great Britain at that time about the responsibility of the architect. A Zed and Two Noughts was initially a film made to consider how man, the superior species of the world, has subjugated the rest of the animal life to his credo, his attitudes.

A good description of some of my film-making activity is “a conversational dissertation wrapped up in an entertaining narrative form.” At the core there are a number of notions and interrelated ideas which need to be discussed, almost in a conversational way.

While Greenaway recognises his contemporary isolation in attempting to construct a cinema of ideas, drama and formal self-reflexivity, he draws inspiration from other art forms. His heroes include modernists like the painter R. B. Kitaj and the composer John Cage, but also Jacobean dramatists like Ford and Webster. He is especially drawn to the masque form—the courtly entertainment—where it was not unknown for the king himself to participate in elaborate stage allegories representing the power of the monarch.

Despite the metaphorical message of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover about the avarice and philistinism of Thatcher's Britain, the film borrowed its dramatic form from Jacobean drama, with Helen Mirren taking final cannibalistic revenge on her brutal gourmet husband. So what is it that draws Greenaway back to the seventeenth century?

The masque is basically an elite private entertainment, very much to do with symbols and emblems and allegories. And anybody who has seen my cinema will know that metaphors and allegories fascinate me enormously. The other aspect of Jacobean drama I like is its extraordinary relish for risk-taking. It's very visceral, very corporeal and often plays with extremely taboo subjects like incest, for example in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. I suppose these things were at the back of my mind when writing The Cook, the Thief. And although The Draughtsman's Contract is a Restoration drama and not a Jacobean drama, there is a lot of Jacobean concern for that hard edge of morality, sex and violence, which I think gives the film a lot of its tensions.

However, The Tempest, which begins with some of the thrust of Jacobean revenge drama, doesn't develop in the expected way. Though in Greenaway's hands the darker aspects of the play are predictably foregrounded, what is unusual is that the spirit of conciliation prevails.

The play would certainly seem to start off as a revenge drama, with Prospero in the first five minutes ranting about his past and vowing revenge. But then two-thirds of the way through, almost without prior warning, the situation is broken open completely and there is a moment of truth when Prospero decides to forgive everybody. We have actually used this as a pivotal moment in the film, and for my purposes I am very happy with that sudden change of heart. But you must not be misled into thinking that this is psycho-drama. It is a drama of conceits and allegories and metaphors, and under these terms a sudden change of heart can no doubt be seen to be relevant to all the other concerns of the play.

Greenaway's films are littered with flawed male protagonists whose arrogance and grandiose artistic schemes are ultimately their undoing—from Anthony Higgins' conceited draughtsman to Brian Dennehy's auto-destructive architect. But Prospero is in many ways the ultimate manipulator—a magus who contrives the whole story. Does he represent a new kind of hero for Greenaway?

There is a deliberate amalgamation or confusion between Shakespeare, Gielgud and Prospero—they are, in effect, the same person. It is Shakespeare's last play, his farewell to illusionism, his farewell to playing games, his farewell to all this anti-naturalism. Gielgud at eighty-seven is obviously near the end of his life, and he has had an incredibly long theatrical career. So in terms of English classical theatre, it is his goodbye to illusionism, to costumes, to dressing up, to playing games. And of course within the confines of the play itself this is exactly what Prospero does—in the famous last speech he actually turns to his audience and begs their forgiveness and abandons his magic before he leaves the stage.

At the same time, I don't think there is any doubt at all that when Gielgud appears in Prospero's Books he is an actor. He is giving in some ways a purple performance; he is a virtuoso actor and we allow him that space—this is quite deliberate. There are things about Prospero where you feel that's also true—sometimes when you read the dialogue you can see him looking at himself from the outside as he plays his various roles: patrician statesman, silly old fool, prohibitive father. It is a series of ways of breaking the character down.

Perhaps what most distinguishes Prospero's Books from Greenaway's previous work is its lack of strong female protagonists. In Shakespeare's play Miranda is the only woman, and she is little more than a child; in Prospero's Books, Greenaway may have added Susannah, Miranda's mother, who is seen in a series of flashbacks, but neither of the women enjoys a major active role.

While Greenaway's work has often been accused of misogyny because of the extreme humiliation suffered by women characters in his films—especially the sexual abuse hurled on Helen Mirren in The Cook, the Thief—Greenaway professes an enthusiasm for strong female characters who, more often than not, turn out to be secretly running the show. So how did he deal with Shakespeare's most famous naïf, Miranda, Prospero's daughter, as played by Isabel Pascoe?

For the first third of the play she is no more, I suppose, than the representative of the audience, the device Prospero needs to explain to the audience what the history has been. She makes no contribution to anything herself. I have to admit that in the film we have pushed that tendency even further, because we have made her constantly asleep. And even at the end she still doesn't come over as a particularly strong-minded wench.

But as a pawn, as a cipher, Miranda is essential to the play because she certainly believes, as I do, in the Darwinian evolution—she is the kingpin, or the queenpin, on which the whole drama peculiarly rests. Ultimately Prospero does get his revenge because he manages to unite the kingdoms of his enemies through the offspring Miranda will no doubt have from her marriage to the son of Alonso, King of Naples.

But perhaps Miranda's passivity was finally too much even for Greenaway. He has written a companion novel to the film which imagines the voyage back to Naples after the play is over. Miranda becomes a constant source of irritation to the conventional courtiers around her—partly due to her enduring virginal behaviour, and partly because of the unconventional ideas which have been drummed into her by her father, from anti-clericalism to the dangerous new ideas of scientific reason.

The provocative potential of intellect and divergent thinking is a subject close to Greenaway's heart. The vertiginous array of arcane and erudite references contained within his films is legendary. How does he justify what is, for some, the main obstacle to appreciating his cinema?

I think civilisation has got where it is not by being led by its emotions, but by degrees of rationalisation, in many complex ways. Why can't this be the subject matter and content and structure of film-making? Because of my inclinations, my cultural background, my education and my temperament, I get great delight out of the manipulation of ideas. Some people find it very difficult to understand that the mere discussion of ideas can be fantastically emotionally satisfying. I try very hard to put that into the cinema so that maybe other people can feel it as well.

Despite Greenaway's steadfast defence of the world of ideas, it is precisely this fascination which is so often the downfall of his protagonists. When pressed on this question, the personal reserve dissolves—for a moment.

Perhaps I gave myself away most in Belly of an Architect about what I have come to believe are the most sensitive areas—about the validity of art, about whether art is worth doing at all, and if art is worth doing, what sort of art is worth doing more than anything else.

I hadn't realised how personal that film is on lots of different levels—the older I get the more personal I find that movie—about immortality, posterity, the significances of reproduction, both artistic and genetic. I suppose I do feel a certain optimism for art itself. Small pieces of jade from an ancient 5,000-year-old Chinese tomb: we don't understand their political significance, we don't understand their religious significance, but they are able somehow to communicate to us in other ways. There seems to be some clue here, a search for doing something which in a cosmic sense would be totally and absolutely useless, but in a human sense—if we are allotted a certain amount of time on earth—we need to engage with unless we all want to go and commit mass suicide. But if you take the other, more pragmatic view, in a Darwinian sense my purpose on earth is entirely over. I have engendered two daughters, I have passed on the genetic material, so what I do now, between their birth and my death, is just embellishing the nest a little. The spark, that piece of electricity from God to Adam, has passed on, and I am merely engaged—in a cosmic sense—in decoration.


Prospero's Books is due to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May and released in Britain later this year. Peter Greenaway is publishing three books in conjunction with the film—the script, a novel called Prospero's Creatures, and extracts from the apocryphal books under the title Ex Libris Prospero. His next film project, Fifty-Five Men on Horseback, is a love story based on a series of paintings of horses, and he hopes to make another film, using high definition television techniques in conjunction with NHK, based on Tulse Luper, the mysterious ornithologist at the centre of A Walk through H. He is working on two television documentaries about Mozart and Darwin, preparing a stage version of the opera The Death of Webern and Others, and an exhibition of paintings which make up an unfilmable film called The Stairs.

Jonathan Romney (review date September 1991)

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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, the king's brother Sebastian and son Ferdinand, an old courtier, Gonzalo, and Prospero's brother Antonio, who has usurped his dukedom.

As his daughter Miranda sleeps, Prospero tells her of their past: of his late wife Susannah; of how, in order to concentrate on his studies, he handed over his rule to Antonio, only to find himself being betrayed; and of how he and Miranda were driven away in a boat, equipped by his friend Gonzalo with a selection of Prospero's most prized books, from which, since landing on the island, he has derived his present power and knowledge. Prospero reminds his attendant spirit Ariel of how he freed him from servitude to the witch Sycorax, and with Miranda visits the witch's son, the savage Caliban.

Ferdinand arrives safely on the island, and when he meets Miranda, they fall in love; but Prospero pretends to take him prisoner. The rest of the party arrive on the island; while the king and Gonzalo sleep, Antonio and Sebastian plot to kill them and usurp the crown, but Ariel intercedes. Also washed ashore, Stephano, a butler, and Trinculo, a jester, encounter Caliban, who proposes that they murder Prospero and have Stephano rule the island in his place. Spirits bring a banquet to Alonso's party, but Ariel appears disguised as a harpy, to accuse them of their various crimes and to present Alonso with an image of his son's death. Prospero blesses the union of Miranda and Ferdinand by staging a masque presided over by the goddesses Iris, Ceres and Juno.

Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban try to invade Prospero's palace, but are repelled by spirits. Having witnessed Alonso's grief, Ariel persuades Prospero to have mercy on the lost party. As the king's party arrives at his palace, Prospero throws off his robes and, restoring Ariel's freedom, forgives his old enemies. Prospero proposes to leave the island with them on the now-restored ship, and orders all his books to be destroyed; the only ones saved, rescued from the water by Caliban, are a volume of Shakespeare's plays, and a smaller volume that completes it—the text of The Tempest. Prospero finally begs forgiveness of the audience and asks to be set free in his turn.

Just as Prospero's twenty-four volumes, which include the text of the drama we're watching, comprise a collection of all knowledge, Prospero's Books might itself be seen as the encyclopaedic summum of Greenaway's formal and thematic concerns to date. Certainly it alludes in one way or another to nearly all his previous films: it contains a book of mythology, a compendium of all possible narratives, like his own compendium film The Falls; it reprises his repertoire of water motifs, from Water Wrackets to the recent short Death in the Seine; it ceaselessly interrogates the printed word and image (echoing A Walk through H); and it directly transcribes visual and musical motifs from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.

Greenaway interprets The Tempest as the story of a mind reviewing its entire contents. The film's own rereading of Greenaway's oeuvre could conceivably represent an attempt on the director's part to exhaust his repertoire before embarking on an entirely new project; and in a sense, any further steps in the direction indicated by this film would be superfluous. Prospero's Books does suggest at least two possible paths—an elaboration of the new cutting rhythm explored here; and a further exploration of the mixing of cinema and paintbox, of the play of identity and difference between film and video, and of the new type of cinematic literariness which that playfulness opens up. This is not the composed, urbane literariness of Merchant-Ivory, or even of The Draughtsman's Contract, but rather film rethought as an infinitely malleable ‘writing.’

It may seem curious that this near-resumé of the director's films should be derived not from his own screenplay but from Shakespeare. However, this is only indirectly a ‘version’ of The Tempest. It would be truer to call it a variation in the musical sense, an annotated commentary (just as Greenaway and Tom Phillips annotated the Inferno in their TV Dante), or—quite literally—a reading of it. A commentary on the play is supplied by images of the books, generated by high-definition TV and computer-paintbox graphics. And there is an extraordinary amount of writing—words etched in stone, on parchment, in air, on water, in the image itself. To complete the effect, text, image and sound constantly blur into each other—the mariner's cry “We split! We split! We split!” becomes a motto for the film's infinite fragmentation of language and image.

Prospero is at once actor, author and director of his own script, and by no means the first such magister ludi in a Greenaway film. Tulse Luper, the master forger of the early films, and the heroes of The Draughtsman's Contract,The Belly of an Architect and Drowning by Numbers all figured as projections of Greenaway's own self-questioning aspirations to transcendental authorship. At the same time, they functioned as flawed, doomed figures of the auteur as autocrat, and Prospero too is partly the victim of his own power. What Greenaway primarily reads in Shakespeare is a sense of awe at, but also a critique of, the autocratic imagination. Imprisoned in his guise as Renaissance doge, Prospero is prisoner of the various frames, mirrors and proscenium arches that compartmentalise the screen—until, that is, he renounces his power, and begs the audience to grant him a termination of the illusionistic contract.

Prospero's palace, like his mind—and like the film itself—resembles a labyrinthine department store, containing all possibilities in the most obscure arrangements. The film is organised so as to exhaust the viewer's perceptive capacities. This is partly because of an extremely brisk cutting speed that is something of a departure for Greenaway (although it echoes A TV Dante and the rhythmic editing of Making a Splash); and partly because of the sheer proliferation of imagery. The baroque visuals—fashioned as ever by cinematographer Sacha Vierny and designers Jan Roelfs and Ben van Os—are extravagant to the point of profligacy. When a succession of spirits present wedding gifts to the young couple, each gift is only briefly glimpsed, but each is meticulously composed and lit to resemble a Dutch still life. Greenaway is no less profligate with his erudition, and the allusions to Renaissance Italian, Dutch Golden Age, Spanish and French nineteenth-century painting are legion.

The ostentatious erudition could in itself be considered kitsch—when the script calls for a screen full of sleeping mariners, they're inevitably lit like Géricault's “Raft of the Medusa”—but then it is quite knowingly so. Tumbling underwater nymphs recall the synchronised swimmers of Making a Splash, but also the glaucous odalisques of French academic painters like Bouguereau, not to mention their Busby Berkeley descendants. Indeed, the only true precursor of this filmed Shakespeare is Max Reinhardt's 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose turbanned princeling is briefly reincarnated here by Ariel (another Dream echoed is Peter Brook's production, with its trapezes).

Greenaway obscures action while displaying it, employing several internationally illustrious actors and requiring them to remain not only mute but almost unrecognisable under ruffs, masks and vast hats. The fact that, for the most part, John Gielgud speaks all the parts jettisons the certainties usually provided by dramatis personae. Greenaway provides the elements of spectacle but leaves the task of ordering them to the viewer, whose role as final arbiter of the film's shape is addressed in Prospero's closing speech. By presenting too much to take in at a glance, Greenaway tests to the limit his ideal of a painterly cinema. The tendency to over-emphasise points reaches a delirious apogee when the film animates textual images: an anatomy book disgorges throbbing, bloody organs, a bestiary swarms with frogs and lizards. This contributes to a general undermining of the smooth surface of the text, disturbing the (already slender) certainties of the play with evidence of words' tendency to become flesh (or water, or metal, or colour, or any of the other metamorphoses the books exhibit).

If Greenaway seems to be cramming like there's no tomorrow, there is at least a thematic justification. The images come and go, consuming themselves in a flash, just as the books finally combust or erase themselves. The film embodies a desperate awareness of the transitory, immaterial nature of images, to an extent countered by a fixation with the materiality of bodies, most disturbingly when Susannah opens up the ‘book’ of her own belly. The film seems impelled to take on every visual possibility imaginable, in as concrete terms as possible, before the whole “insubstantial pageant” reverts, as it must, to “the stuff that dreams are made on.” To the cacophony of Prospero's “isle full of noises,” Greenaway adds a visual and conceptual ‘cacography’ that invites reading all the more energetically for defying it.

David Nokes (review date 13 September 1991)

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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 text. Prospero's island is transformed into a library of Borgesian allegories, a palace garden of earthly delights embellished after the manner of countless Renaissance masters from Bosch to Botticelli. The play itself becomes a kind of cento, a visual and verbal palimpsest, as Greenaway, exploiting all the hi-tech magic of his electronic paintbox, layers the screen with level upon level of trompe l'oeil effects. The pages of histories, bestiaries, cosmologies, books of science, religion and art are ransacked and brought to life. The effect of all this artifice is truly dazzling, entrancing us with its wit while impressing us with its sophisticated repertoire of Renaissance iconography.

As the least obviously dramatic and most dreamlike of Shakespeare's plays, The Tempest has often been the source for filmic experimentation. In 1956, The Forbidden Planet turned it into a science-fiction movie; in 1980 Derek Jarman offered his punk vision of the play, with Elisabeth Welch's camp version of “Stormy Weather.” With all human endeavours on the island circumscribed by the power of Prospero's spells, it is clearly a work in which conjuring is more evident than conflict. Yet Greenaway has gone much further than previous directors in de-humanizing the play. Until the very end, when Prospero finally abjures his “rough magic” and drowns his book, none of the other characters is allowed to speak. Their lines are all delivered by Prospero (John Gielgud); he is their ventriloquist, and they, his dummies, mouth their lines at his command in voiceless accompaniment. The effect of this is not merely to identify Prospero the magus as Shakespeare's alter-ego (he is shown, anachronistically, writing The Tempest to complete the First Folio), but to transform the rest of the proceedings into a kind of spectacular dumb-show.

Gielgud's performance is, as one might expect, magnificent; he speaks the lines with a sense of meditative daring, repeating words and phrases as if they were indeed new-minted in his brain. Yet, however mellifluous his phrasing, since his words are constantly made to reverberate through a booming electronic echo-chamber, they eventually become monotonous. One longs for some other voice to break through the obsessive and oppressive spell. This is a very claustrophobic and imprisoning film. Its long slow tracking shots, and the relentless ostentation of its visual special effects, reduce us to the status of voyeurs. Greenaway's fascination is with the surface of things: beautiful, tantalizing, seductive and unreal. This is Renaissance humanism without the humanity. Naked bodies, their genitals elaborately displayed, their movements syncopated in robotic unison with Michael Nyman's synthesized musical score, parade before us in a pseudo-Edenic fantasy. Even when a woman's body flaps open, her flesh folding back like the page of a book to reveal the inner workings of her womb, that too becomes another surface, an exhibit to be viewed. Scene discloses scene and frame is superimposed on frame, but we never reach a point of human contact; all we have are forms, images, illusions and allusions. The entrance of the nobles, Alonso, Antonio, Sebastian and Gonzalo, coincides with opening the pages of a bestiary; lizards, crustaceans and molluscs crawl across the screen as Prospero gives voice to notions of an ideal commonwealth. In their shiny black coats with extravagant ruffs like the puff-bladders of some exotic fish, and hats cascading with ostrich plumes, the nobles strutting like turkey-cocks are clearly to be viewed as prime exhibits of some strange species.

Prospero's Books is undoubtedly a brilliant cinematic essay and a spectacular technical feat. Yet it adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts. Clips from the film have a mesmerizing effect. But at times the high intensity of its visual effects has something of the stylistic obsessiveness of a pop video or up-market advertisement; and what is spell-binding for two minutes may be less so for two hours.

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

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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 of Yoyogi Park, in what can only be described as a human dot matrix, 49 young Asian men in pompadour hairstyles, arrayed in a 7-by-7 grid, execute rockabilly dance moves in strict unison to the beat of American rock-and-roll songs—perhaps older than the dancers themselves—played loud on an enormous radio.

Just behind the dancers, cutting into the Tokyo skyline, is the imposing headquarters of NHK, the Japanese broadcasting giant. And inside the NHK corporate fortress, in the corridors of the west wing, an equally delirious clash of cultures is being played out. Here, against a backdrop of (literally) millions of dollars' worth of high-definition video equipment, Peter Greenaway, the English writer-director of such art-house classics as The Draughtsman's Contract and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, is at work on a film. Looking donnish indeed in a blue blazer and casually draped woolen scarf, Greenaway is engaged in conversation (via an interpreter) with a crew of young Japanese men and women in identical (and very nifty) bright red “Team Hi-Vision” warm-up jackets.

Greenaway is here to orchestrate the postproduction of Prospero's Books, his latest and most ambitious work, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Tempest at once fanciful and exact. Shot on film in Holland with a multinational cast headed by Sir John Gielgud, Prospero's Books is being edited on videotape here in Japan in one of the world's most advanced high-tech postproduction suites and later will be transferred back to celluloid for release.

The visual image on the high-definition monitors is thrillingly dense: Actors vie for screen space with superimposed calligraphy, Muybridge-like animatics and all manner of body parts. Greenaway's trademark long lateral tracking shots—now a seminaked woman skipping rope, now a tableau from Hals or Vermeer, now a very young boy urinating with gleeful (and artificially enhanced?) abandon into a swimming pool where Sir John is bathing—compete for attention with cadenced drops of water, rhythmically pulsing balls of fire and, above all, the lovingly rendered scrape of pen against parchment.

Greenaway has a formal, rigorous, near-algebraic approach to film narrative—“there's a way in which the scripts themselves are almost constructed on a grid,” he says—that is almost always belied by a luxe, painterly richness. But here he pulls out all the stops. Layer upon layer upon gorgeous layer of text and image float across the screen, like a 1940s MGM montage gone mad, a Slavko Vorkapich fever dream.

It's a process fraught with possibilities—as the film's producer Kees Kasander says, “perhaps too many possibilities.” On this electronic island—of which, one supposes, Greenaway is the Prospero—anything can happen. Adding another metaphor, another layer of meaning, becomes just a matter of tweaking a slider on the Sony HDS7.

While the Team Hi-Vision technicians are taking their lunch break, Greenaway—who speaks rapidly, articulately, in complete, cadenced sentences and well-structured paragraphs, his speech peppered with words like shan't and albeit—puts forth a version of his history as a filmmaker and how he came to make Prospero's Books.

“Shall I just talk about the barest bones?” he asks. “Well, I suppose I've made about 30 films. The earlier ones were made under very noncommercial circumstances, of which I suppose The Falls is the ultimate one—the encyclopedia that would bring everything together.

“That initial, sort of very private approach to filmmaking,” Greenaway says, “which obviously had extremely restricted audiences, was much more appreciated, I suppose, by the painterly fraternity—semioticians, theoreticians of the cinema—perhaps more than by the general public. But that's a period I still look back fondly upon and often regret in some cases I can't get back to. 'Cause it's extremely open-ended, requires comparatively little collaboration—and I'm not, on the whole, a very good collaborator.”

He pauses as if to indicate a new paragraph. “Now, all the time that I was making these films, though, I was also engaged in the making of television work. I sincerely believed that if cinema could command a full vocabulary which was made up of 26 letters of the alphabet, there was a way in which television could only handle vowels. I since have come to believe that that's not true and that television has its own alphabet. I made about six or seven programs in television which I tried very hard to turn into what I would call television television. Deliberately against the language of film. And a program called TV Dante, I suppose, was finally the opportunity for me to get my hands on comparatively sophisticated, if ultimately low-tech, technology.

“There are, obviously, tremendous frustrations about working for television, only one of which—not necessarily the most important—is the question of scale. My frustrations about making very complex pictures on television for Dante and not being able to see them in high quality on a big screen, where there's a mass of information that comes rushing at you, hundreds of events, bang, bang, bang, bang. …” He smiles. “All that explosion on the tiny screen was very frustrating.

“So. Having made The Cook, the Thief, which was CinemaScope, wide-screen, taking it to the other extreme if you like—big screens, lush cinematography, rich use of all the vocabulary of cinema—and also playing, I would like to think, at the cusp of what television was all about, television language, I dreamt somehow of bringing these two together.

“And this, of course, is why we're here in Japan.”

Well, as it turns out, not quite Japan.

Though the NHK facility is square in the heart of Tokyo, the edit suite—and the electronic Paintbox suite down the hall, connected by an imposing snake of co-ax cables—is not officially part of the country at all. By way of explanation, Greenaway points to the sign in Japanese on the door.

“Well, I think it's something like, All strangers are forbidden in this room. And that is because we're under a certain interdict which suggests that our program is erotic, if not pornographic. You're probably aware of the Japanese sensitivity about pornography, yes? There is a law which says, Thou shalt not show pubic hair. Which I take, by the way, to be a pseudonymous way of saying, Thou shan't show genitalia on the screen.

“Shakespeare wasn't particularly known to be highly erotic—or if he was, by inference rather than by direct fact. We, however, have made a treatment of a Shakespeare work whereby there are a considerable number of naked people.”

Greenaway continues, moving his hands in small, precise gestures as if wielding a pointer or baton. “The whole of this studio is bonded; that is to say, we are not officially in Japan per se, but rather, in what is considered for these purposes an adjunct of the customs shed at Narita airport. Officially, we are not here because we are pornographic. It's a rather curious situation.

“This means that everybody who works in this room or that is supposed to walk around with a little badge allowing official entry into a bonded area. You see I'm not wearing one,” he says. “But that's only because I'm carrying it in my pocket.”

Kasander—a handsome, unflappable Dutchman who used to produce the Rotterdam Film Festival—is as excited by the editing process as by the work: “Celluloid is so limited and so conventional nowadays, so badly organized—the large crews, the way it's shot, the cameras, so many problems, so stupid, so back-to-the-Middle Ages—that it's time to leave all that behind and do something different.”

Greenaway concurs. “The very reasons I became interested in the cinema or television were because of the extraordinary opportunities to play with images, to play with words, to play with their interactions. I started my career as a painter. And I still believe painting is, for me, the supreme visual means of communication. Its freedoms, its attitudes, its history, its potential. And if you look at 20th-century painting, it's been 10,000 times more radical than the cinema has.” He pauses. “Cinema,” he says, “is a grossly conservative medium.”

He sweeps his arm as if to invoke Kasander's nightmare vision—the world of celluloid and its heavy-metal apparatus. “The cinema is conservative because vast sums of money are necessary to make it. And it's conservative because it is a very large collaboration. If you look at the 20th-century inventions in painting, from cubism onward, there has been absolutely nothing comparable in cinema. So the cinema, you see, seems to be an opportunity to expand on those things which my rather small painterly talent would never allow me to.

“I desperately think,” he says politely, “that cinema needs a savage jab in the arm.”

That jab in the arm is being administered, in this case, by a not-so-savage array of Hi-Vision equipment (Hi-Vision being NHK's proprietary name for high-definition television, which offers a film-style aspect ratio and several times the resolution of standard TV).

How it works: In the Paintbox room, Eve Ramboz enters images into her computer via a high-definition video camera. The images—plundered from a variety of books featuring the work of da Vinci and Muybridge, among others—are then treated by Ramboz: colorized, resized, rotated, enhanced. As Ramboz works the images, Greenaway looks on and offers suggestions: “A deeper red, a burgundy. No, it's the same color as the letter. Maybe something blue, but not the ED blue. Can you make the dots bigger? There's still some black in there. Good!”

The Paintbox images are then ported down the hall to the edit suite, where layer after layer of superimposition is tested, tailored, adjusted, combined. At every turn, Greenaway seems preternaturally certain about what he wants to see—as if the film already existed inside his head, the task now being but to coax out those images from the bank of switches and devices. He speaks to his equipe: “I want to have 15 frames fade in, hold it for five seconds, 15 frames fade out. I want the fade-in to begin the very moment that the face disappears.”

The engineers reroll tape, stare at the frenetically rewinding image on the monitors, pull sliders, twirl knobs. Now Greenaway views the results of his instructions. “It's too long. Can we make it four seconds?” he asks editor Marina Bodbijl. He views the new cut. “Now let us try three seconds.” They make the edit, play back the tape. “Good,” says Greenaway, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Now. Can we reconstruct ‘The Anatomy of Birth’ according to this new ratio? Would it be at all possible?”

Prospero's Books is, in essence, a set of perpetual translations.

The first is Greenaway's “interpretation” of The Tempest, in which one line of Prospero's—“knowing I loved my books, he [Gonzalo] furnished me from mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom”—is made to serve as the metaphor for the whole enterprise. Greenaway then assumes that this library contained some 24 books and proceeds, one by one, to invent them. The 24 books—like the 12 drawings in The Draughtsman's Contract, the sequential digits in Drowning by Numbers or the color scheme in The Cook, the Thief—provide Greenaway with his grid, his armature.

“I'm often thought of, by those critics who hate what I do, as being incredibly anal-retentive,” says Greenaway. “But I would refute that. I think that I can quite honestly say that I'm open to a serendipity.

“Besides,” he adds, “this is the first time I've actually used, as it were, somebody else's screenplay.”

The second translation is the technological one, that of film-to-tape-to-film: Shot on 35mm film (by the venerable Sacha Vierny, who contributed his talents to such modern classics as Belle de Jour and Last Year at Marienbad, as well as several previous Greenaways), Prospero's Books was then transferred to 1125-line high-definition wide-screen video. Superimpositions, special effects and opticals were added in the video domain and then transferred back to film to be married with the original celluloid. (In conventional film-to-tape editing, the tape version is too low-fidelity to be transferred back to film—the end product of those devices is, rather, a computer-generated Edit Decision List, whose numbers can be used to conform the celluloid to the videotape edit.)

And third, underlying all, is the translation whereby Prospero becomes Shakespeare and Gielgud becomes Prospero—with Greenaway perhaps hovering above all.

Greenaway explains: “The Tempest [has been] a fantastically popular play for the past 10 years or so.” He speaks briefly of Paul Mazursky's Tempest, of Derek Jarman's Tempest and of Forbidden Planet, that wonderful '50s science-fiction chestnut in which Walter Pigeon plays Dr. Morbius, the Prospero of Altair-IV, with Robby the Robot as his Ariel.

“For me,” Greenaway continues, “The Tempest is extremely self-referential, and I always tend to feel the most sympathy for those works of art which do have that sort of self-knowledge, that say, basically, ‘I am an artifice.’ I very much like the idea that when somebody sits in the cinema and watches a film of mine, it's not a slice of life, it's not a window on the world. It's a constant concern of mine to bring the audience back to this realization.

The Tempest is somehow an ideal medium to play this game. To start, there's a way in which Prospero himself is a portrait of Shakespeare. Although first person isn't used all the time—he's not saying, ‘I, I, I’—there are inferences, certainly toward the end of the play and certainly in the epilogue, which say, ‘I am an artificer, I have spent most of my life making tricks for you; if you like them, well and good, but if you don't, no matter, I'm now taking my leave.’ Taking leave of you, the theater, the world of illusion. And supposedly, it is Shakespeare's last full play.

“Obviously, what clinched it was the opportunity we were offered to have the last grand classic English Shakespearian actor, Sir John Gielgud, to play what presumably is the last performance of his life—he's 86. So we can have an identity cross-referencing Shakespeare, Prospero and Gielgud. And I've tried very hard to do that, so that Gielgud is Shakespeare, so much so that, as the film progresses, we actually see Gielgud/Prospero as Shakespeare writing The Tempest. Self-referential, and it brings us back to text again. Because we see the text written.

“Well, a cynic, of course, might say, This is all highly fashionable, it's very postmodernist, part of that phenomenon. And, of course, I would not deny it. Gielgud is not Action Man, but he does have the most magnificent voice and an extraordinary ability to use it. And since there is a way that Prospero is both Gielgud and Shakespeare, we have got Prospero himself to invent the dialogue for all the other characters. And as you see Gielgud/Shakespeare/Prospero writing the dialogue, so you see Prospero, as played by Gielgud, trying the dialogue out. Ultimately, Gielgud's voice is everybody. But, since this is a Jacobean play, there is a feeling that this originally might have been a classic revenge drama—something like [17th-century playwright John] Ford's 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore, on which I based, in fact, The Cook, the Thief. But unlike that film, this is a broken-backed revenge tragedy—because it doesn't end in revenge. It goes to a certain point, then suddenly doglegs in a different direction.

“And I've used that crucial point which suggests that forgiveness brings alive that which revenge can only keep dead. So all the characters, who have been previously voiced by Gielgud, at that moment of forgiveness suddenly speak for themselves.”

But if Prospero (and perhaps Gielgud) has renounced his artifice, it's not at all clear that Greenaway is about to renounce his. Though the cross-cultural, cross-technological project was not without its difficulties, a basic sense of goodwill exists among these comrades in electronic arms.

Greenaway and Kasander love jousting against celluloid and found NHK a stunning benefactor (the postproduction time and services furnished to Prospero's Books would be worth, on the open market, perhaps $4 million). Says Kasander, “It works for us, it works for NHK. 'Cause we do the research for them. We did perhaps 80 percent research and 20 percent the real work. In exchange, we can do everything for free.” Kasander says that he and Greenaway pushed the limits of what Hi-Vision could accomplish. “We asked so many things from them, we sent back the first [tape-to-film] transfers, we refused almost everything because it was not good enough. But now it's good. It's one step forward.”

The transfers were done at Imagica, the leading Japanese film lab. Although the Prospero material presented formidable obstacles—due, in part, to Greenaway and Vierny's insistence on high-contrast chiaroscuro film-style shots, with no concession to the lowered contrast range of video—Imagica managed, by assiduous tweaking, to produce video and video-to-tape images without grain and with full, rich blacks.

NHK seems content, as well, to let Greenaway—and, on a slightly earlier project, Wim Wenders—have their days on the Hi-Vision playing fields. Wenders, says Hi-Vision technical director Hideichi Tamegaya, became fascinated by the grain artifacts that appear on the screen when HDTV tape is fast-forwarded or rewound at high speed on digital recorders. “I tell him, ‘This is not an actual effect, this is noise.’ But he thought it was very good.” Wenders ended up using the hi-def noise artifacts extensively in his film Until the End of the World for dream sequences. “We developed,” says Tamegaya, “a special system as a means of dealing with strange images.”

Greenaway sighs about some of the constraints of this post-production. “I'm a guest in the country, and I'm grateful for what's been offered, but I'm used to very sophisticated Western video houses, where you move very fast—not least of all because it's incredibly expensive. It took 3 [frac12] weeks to do 8 [frac12] minutes of film. And the actual degree of complexity I don't think is that astonishing. It's a combination of unfamiliarity with the approach, the inexpertise of the technicians—which is not their fault, they just haven't had the experience. I suppose the third factor which must be taken into account is that the machinery is well-nigh prototype.

“Retrospectively, I wish we'd been more ambitious. But this whole exercise—like every film you make—opens so many doors. Now we're looking out the window to the next ocean. And that's very exciting.”

Greenaway smiles. “You know that [Jacques] Derrida quotation which says, The picture always has the last word? A great little epigram. And here I am taking this renowned text and turning it into images. Now, I don't want this to be an English intellectual playing with the tools, as I did in TV Dante. But even if we have created something unsatisfactory, I shan't cry copious tears over it, because I can see now the potential.”

Once more, Greenaway describes the precise sequence of dissolves and superimpositions he'd like for a particular sequence. Now, as the red-jacketed engineers find the right section of tape, Greenaway—assured of perhaps 10 minutes during which he will not be called upon to make a decision—retreats to the corner where, seemingly oblivious to the multilingual play of voices in the edit suite, he types out a scene for yet another film on his laptop computer.

“There's a project,” he says later, “I'd like very much to do, called Prospero's Creatures, about what happened before the beginning. Sort of a prelude to The Tempest. And I've also written a play called Miranda, about what happens afterwards on the ship on the way home. It's about what happens to innocence and how it has to be destroyed.”

Richard Alleva (review date 31 January 1992)

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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 Tempest that renders about one-tenth of the magic of this great fantasy. Considering what atrocities Greenaway has flung onto screens (the loathsome The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, the mincingly sadistic and finally incoherent The Draughtsman's Contract), we should be grateful for even this small measure.

Greenaway, of course, undermines the story with numerous tricks, narrative and visual, none of which serve to shed light on the play. The most egregious one posits Prospero as planning his revenge on paper in the form of a verse play that just happens to be called The Tempest. This makes Prospero a stand-in for Shakespeare and that's okay by me since Prospero is considered by many critics to be the Bard's most substantially autobiographical portrait. But this Prospero-Shakespeare reads his play-in-progress on the soundtrack with Gielgud speaking the lines of all the characters, not just Prospero's, while various actors and dancers dumbshow their roles on camera. Gielgud as Prospero—si! Gielgud as Miranda—no! Not even vocally! And since the mime is boringly, confusingly choreographed (with many actors masked so that we can't even see their lips move), and since Sir John only slightly alters his familiar tenor cum tremolo voice to suit the other roles, even moviegoers fairly familiar with the text will have trouble distinguishing who is saying what to whom.

Several of Greenaway's images are memorable not as dramatic propulsions of the story (as Oliver's and Kenneth Branagh's are for their versions of Henry V) but as static illustrations of the text. As any good illustration in a book does, Greenaway's better images freeze the characters and plot in midflight and let you savor that moment of transfixion. Thus, Greenaway suspends a colloquy between Ariel and Prospero to give us a flashback in which we see what Ariel looked like when the spirit was literally treed by Caliban's witch-mama Sycorax. The picture is startling, horrible, and comic all at once. Embedded in bark, moss grows out of Ariel's mouth. This sprite, born to be as quick as thought and as impalpable as light, is rotting away within nature.

Other images also work nicely. Ferdinand, sorely tested by Prospero with manual labor, collapses and is comforted by Miranda on a dimly lit staircase that is both forbidding and yet somehow romantic, and which perfectly conveys both present distress and future bliss. And all the scenes that Shakespeare himself intended as sheer spectacle and music—the betrothal celebration, the harpy descending upon the usurpers' dinner—Greenaway mounts skillfully, if excessively, with his celebrated lateral tracking shots, rock-ized Renaissance music, and an abundance of nude bodies painted gold, writhing beside other figures clothed in outré variations on Jacobean garb. In other words, Greenaway the image maestro gets going only when Shakespeare the word maestro pauses.

Or when John Gielgud is serving the word maestro. As I have said, Gielgud has too much to read on the soundtrack, but when he is on camera as Prospero, one cannot get too much of him. Greenaway had the good sense to cut out the pyrotechnics during Prospero's oratorio-like monologues and keep the camera trained on his great star's face, which seems so irradiated by the words spoken that it shines with a proud, humorous mastery. The famous voice hasn't been thickened or clouded by age (though Gielgud is eighty-six), and its owner's command of legato seems to lodge Shakespeare's words in our brains with the speed and happy insidiousness of mental telepathy. Gielgud's Prospero is the one and only Prospero of our age, and we must feel gratitude to Greenaway for preserving some pieces of it.

That's not the only gratitude that's in order. In this Tempest, an unkillable poet and a stalwart theater knight have bailed out Peter Greenaway's very shallow and very leaky little craft.

Nathaniel Bird (review date January–February 1992)

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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 III, or Die Hard II, or Star Trek VI, or Rocky 17), only Greenaway can be depended on to present the unexpected.

With his first work to attract a sizable audience, The Draughtsman's Contract, he crafted a drawing room thriller of marvelous beauty and intricacy. More recently, he added to the MPAA ratings furor with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, confounding accepted limits of propriety, sex, and violence. His most recent work, Drowning by Numbers was a black comedy, of three relatives, all named Cissie Colpitts, who decide to drown their husbands, threaded though with Greenaway's usual fascination with death and games.

After a half-dozen of these highly idiosyncratic, elusive screenplays, he once again surprises us by turning to what would seem to be a most conventional choice: A play, a classic play, a Shakespearean play. And he does give us the play itself, not a wild spinoff such as the science fictional Forbidden Planet or Mazursky's contemporary paraphrase—with no less a Shakespearean actor than Sir John Gielgud.

[Prospero's Books] is indeed Shakespeare's play. Prospero, once duke of Milan, whose position was usurped by his scheming brother, now lives with his blooming adolescent daughter Miranda on an isolated island in scholarly exile, immersed in his eponymous books. His subjects here are the various spirits summoned by his magic, but he is principally served by the “airy spirit” Ariel (here as four separate Ariels) and by Caliban, the loathsome offspring of a marooned witch. When a tempest brings in a ship carrying his peers from Italy, including the traitorous brother, Prospero sees his chance both to exact revenge and to espouse his daughter to the prince of Naples.

Sir John Gielgud, the original initiator of this project, has played the role of Prospero several times onstage and had persevered for years in his efforts to find a director for a film version. But once he entered into a collaboration with Peter Greenaway, this could be no conventional rendering of Shakespeare.

Greenaway has tailored his screenplay to showcase Gielgud's sonorous voice, but has also indulged his love of complexity and visual lavishness. As envisioned by Greenaway, Prospero, as scholar and magician, creates the story himself. Linking the roles of Prospero and Shakespeare—and Greenaway himself, for that matter, who also has something of a Renaissance sensibility—not only does Prospero write his own script (the shots of his inkwell and calligraphy continue to remind the audience), he also speaks all other parts as the story develops, until, with a reconciliation, he decides to set the characters free, releasing them to their own devices and their own voices.

The beloved books, which, as Prospero says, he prized above dukedom, are glimpsed as they are catalogued in the course of the movie (as the hundred numbers were ticked off in Drowning by Numbers) and comprise a marvelously fanciful library of Greenaway's invention, perfect for a 17th century savant. The 24 books (Greenaway's reference to the 24 frames per second of film) include a book of mirrors, a book of architecture containing three-dimensional diagrams, a book of utopias, a book of games (of course), an atlas belonging to Orpheus with scorched maps of Hell used in his search for Eurydice, a book of motion which itself dances and jitters so determinedly that it must be weighted down, and, appropriately, a scented red and gold book of love.

For Gielgud, of course, this is his dream role. Unfortunately, few others among this international cast (Michel Blanc as Alonso, Erland Josephson as Gonzalo) are allowed much chance to shine in their parts. Michael Clark, a noted English dancer/choreographer, however, makes a fascinating Caliban, adding his sinuous movements to Shakespeare's vivid language.

Visually, this is a spectacularly sumptuous production, dense with detail and texture, so that it seems beyond belief that the production cost under $3,000,000. A single lengthy take during the credits, following as Prospero paces through his palatial halls peopled by a wild assortment of faery folk is one of the more arresting visuals in recent cinema. In addition to the Renaissance fantasy splendor of the production, there is also staggering editing innovation, via Greenaway's interest in the latest video technology, so that the eye is dazzled not only by the art direction, but also by the editorial virtuosity with successive layers of film, similar to mattes. It should come as no surprise that Greenaway was initially a painter, and later a film editor.

There will no doubt be further ratings debates given, for instance, the extensive (but perfectly appropriate) nudity and a few gruesomely unsettling shots. But compared to, say, Zeffirelli's Hamlet, this is a highly intellectual venture, replete with multiple meanings and variably esoteric references. Although Greenaway has said that the movie requires no previous familiarity with the play, this is not an immediately accessible film and requires considerably more attention than the usual Hollywood product. But it is certainly worth it. Whether or not this will be the definitive Tempest on film, it is certainly a fascinating, magnificent creation.

Peggy Phelan (essay date May 1992)

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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 accommodate the King's taste by giving some stage time to the special effects of the masque. All four of Shakespeare's Romances, and especially The Tempest, his last, are full of disappearing tricks which seem like embryonic special effects in film. Peter Greenaway's breathtaking cinematic treatment of The Tempest,Prospero's Books, accents the strange moment in the history of theatre when drama discovers the beguiling power of visual seduction.

While it has long been the custom to read The Tempest as Shakespeare's farewell to theatre, (even though he went on to write Henry VIII and parts of Two Noble Kinsmen, with John Fletcher), Greenaway doubles and triples the possibilities of reading the play as an autobiography of artist as Magus. Sir John Gielgud plays Prospero—and recites everyone else's lines for the first four acts. This Prospero writes The Tempest in front of our eyes. As he imagines the drama, he mouths the lines of the other characters and more extraordinarily, sees their images appear and disappear in mobile mirrors. Virtually every frame in Prospero's Books operates on at least two planes of space-time. One of those planes refers to the “plot” traced by Shakespeare's play, the others are not chronological or spatially continuous with previous frames. Prospero's mirror is a metaphor for theatre and a surrogate screen. Greenaway's film feels as if it is a film of the film Prospero might have made, had he world enough and time. Combining the Renaissance convention that theatre's job is to hold a mirror up to nature and the intricate contemporary critical theory of the cinema as both a mirror and a screen for the spectator's “identifications,” Greenaway's film simultaneously projects a deeply accurate Renaissance worldview and an exhilarating illustration of the most technically innovative possibilities of contemporary cinema.

Greenaway's first premise is that Gonzalo put twenty-four books into the leaky boat he provided for Prospero's and Miranda's escape from Italy. His film opens each book, allowing the spectator to read Prospero's developing play in relation to the books he has already read. Each book is placed over the frame of the play's action, thus giving virtually every frame at least two orientations in time-space.

While Shakespeare/Prospero may have thought of himself as an exiled ruler from a court panting after a different sort of magic, Greenaway sees himself as a herald for a radically different form of technology. “O brave new world” Greenaway thinks—and then illustrates its remarkable beauty and seductive power. His film then is “about” a playwright leaving the theatre, performed by an actor who may be thinking about retiring, and is directed by a man who wants to redefine the properties of the filmic frame.

Greenaway's magic, like Prospero's, is a strange mix of science and art. “The Graphic Paintbox” is a digital, electronic canvas which allows the filmmaker to compose images on a computer screen that can then be reshot and added to traditionally shot filmic images. The paintbox images are astonishing because they seem to combine both the personal signature of a single artist and the neutrality and “authenticity” of mechanical reproduction. The filmmaker, working on the computer, has access to a library of images and texts which can be called up and recombined with “new” images or with other images (words, numbers, and so on). Additionally, the filmmaker has an electronic palette from which colors can be mixed and matched with precise nuance or careless abandon.

Greenaway's lavish use of this technology overthrows the confining rules of perspective which have defined Hollywood film practice since its inception. The frame is no longer a two-dimensional object. Like a paper model of a cube folded into a book, the frame unfolds and reveals multiple layers of spatial dimensions. The use of perspective in Renaissance painting and theatre set design transformed the spatial dimensions of the square canvas and the flat set: Greenaway's paintbox similarly indicates a radical new way of seeing cinematic space.

As the notion of spatial perspective is expanded the tight rigidity of temporal continuity (reinforced by Hollywood editing in the form of match cuts and synchronic sound) is also undone. After seeing three hundred shades of finely distinguished colors flash across the frame while we read The Book of Colours, what is the temporal logic of the next shot? On the macro level, the question of temporal continuity is poised in relation to the historical disjunctions of the references to art and architectural history, many of which were created after the “actual” time of Shakespeare's text (1611). For Greenaway, time is a way of counting, an alphabet that can be recited backwards or forwards. Different parts of the alphabet can be placed next to each other and new words and images can be formed by these odd relations. Cinema, like architecture and time, is a specific form of counting. Numbers inspire Greenaway with a curious reverence and freedom.

With Greenaway (as with Shakespeare), numbers are always metaphorical and literal. One hundred in Prospero's Books is the always approaching but never fully arrived at moment of completion. On both the micro and macro level the film is structured around coherently symmetrical forms which are constantly imitated and gestured toward but which twist or fail to unify at the last minute. Numbers are cracked open, halved, doubled, added to one another, and subtracted in a frenzied calculus that has more than a little to do with the digital logic of the Graphic Paintbox. For example, at the macro level the film is divided into ninety-one discrete sections, indicating changes in visual location (surely more than enough to satisfy James I) which one unconsciously counts and expects to be “rounded off.” At the micro level, the thirteenth book shown is entitled The Ninety-Two Conceits of the Minotaur and shows ninety-two hybrid transformations of the mythological image. In his published film script Greenaway notes that the book “should have told a hundred, but the puritanical Theseus had heard enough and slew the Minotaur before he could finish.” Incomplete books and unreadable books have places in Prospero's library of twenty-four volumes.

Twenty-four is an appealing number for Greenaway. Twenty-four frames makes up one second of film and twenty-four hours make up one day (The Tempest observes the unities, so twenty-four books should make a full and coherent library for a practicing Magus. Twenty-four also has an interior symmetry; it divides into two equal halves of twelve. Twelve is a magic number for Shakespeare in The Tempest as we shall see. Twenty-four plus twelve is thirty-six, a magic number for Shakespearean scholars, for that is the number of plays preserved in the First Folio of 1623. So when Prospero drowns this book (the Folio) at the end of Greenaway's film, the library is missing a volume and Greenaway is left with twenty-three.

But that seems also to be a perfect number since, as happy historians are fond of repeating, Shakespeare was (supposedly) born on April 23 (1564) and died on April 23 (1616), which is more than a nice match, for April 23rd is also the feast of St. George, the patron saint of England.1

Extra-filmically, the twenty-fourth volume could be said to be replaced by Greenaway's own book, which tells the story of his shots, locations, and love affair with the Graphic Paintbox. In his book he reprints both still images he made with the Paintbox and fragments of writing from the First Folio. If his book can be said to contain all the books from Prospero's library, then Prospero has twenty-five books.

As mentioned earlier twelve is a magic number for Shakespeare in The Tempest. Shakespeare's fifteenth play, Twelfth Night stands behind The Tempest as a preview, a kind of original draft. Malvolio, like Caliban, is confined in a dank small cell, often referred to as a cave. Caves represent the birth of architecture. Prospero's twelfth book is The Book of Architecture and Other Music.Twelfth Night, like The Tempest, begins with a shipwreck and survivors who believe their kin have perished. In every story of farewell there is a gesture toward a beginning, an original moment: as one prepares for the future, one re-projects the past. The play that The Tempest re-writes is Twelfth Night. But more importantly, twelve years is the currency of power between Ariel and Prospero. Prospero's power over Ariel comes, in large part, from his ability to keep projecting (again, literally, in the mirrors which follow him from frame to frame) the image of Ariel howling away twelve winters in a cloven pine.

Ariel is played by four actors in Greenaway's film. As a child, he flies quickly and lightly. As a man, he reasons with Prospero. His transformations reflect both Prospero's need and his own “airy nature.” As a condensation of the history of avant-garde film in which several actors often play one character, and in counterpoint to the tradition of Renaissance theatre in which one actor often played several roles, Ariel functions as Prospero's surveying camera, his time keeper, his means of projection, his “representational apparatus.” Like any relation between an artist and his medium, it is stormy, productive, and for the rare and true artist transformative.

Ariel turns Prospero's plot from a revenge tragedy to an allegory of compassion and forgiveness. After he rebukes Prospero for having no pity on the ship wrecked Italians, Prospero reconsiders the direction of the play he is writing. He abandons the genre of revenge tragedy and instead, writes a play in which power is restored to the rightful heir. Motivated by more than altruism, Prospero's compassion allows Miranda and Ferdinand to marry and resume the rule of Milan.

For Greenaway, the central relationship in The Tempest is between Ariel and Prospero, between the artist and his medium. This goes against recent readings of the play which have accented the relationship between Prospero and Caliban. The argument between them has been employed as a touchstone for ideological critiques of colonialism and racism. While some feminist readings of the play have tried to expand the dramatic possibilities of Miranda, arguing that she is not a compliant daughter but a willful and distracted teacher, in Greenaway's film, especially in the scenes in which Gielgud takes her lines, Miranda seems like a mutely beautiful doll. The tension between Prospero and Ariel is the focus of Greenaway's drama. Prospero commands Ariel because he can continually project the past as the future. He threatens to lock him up in the pine tree for another twelve years if he does not obey Prospero's orders. His threat essentially is “you used to be a nobody, doing work you didn't want to, making those porn movies with Sycorax and with me you are a star doing good work and soon you will be able to work for yourself.”

As an allegory of the relationship between the artist and his medium, Greenaway's film is also then an autobiography of his own role as Magus. In this sense, Prospero's relation to Ariel mirrors Greenaway's with his paintbox. Employing this magic until he completes his film, Greenaway, like Prospero, ends by releasing the magical possibilities of his filmic space. The final sequence shows Ariel running across the screen space, through the clapping courtiers. As he runs, the spatial dimensions of Greenaway's frames fold back up and the frame flattens again to a two-dimensional object and traditional perspective. Ariel then leaps up and out of the frame entirely. A series of water drops drip across the frame and then the screen goes completely black. No light, no mirror, no projection, no representational apparatus, no more books to read. Every third thought shall be a watery grave. But Greenaway's fluid frames may soon be able to reach that interior and enfolded space—the space that thus far, neither the mirror nor the screen has been able to reflect or represent.


  1. The day of Shakespeare's birth is not known. But there is a record of his baptism dated April 26. Often, but by no means always, babies were christened three days after their birth.

Geoffrey Macnab (review date September 1993)

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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 and grand guignol drama, played out on a single, massive set where audience and performers assemble for an Inigo Jones-style masque, The Baby of Mâcon sags under the weight of its director's innumerable hobby-horses. Among the welter of themes Peter Greenaway tackles are voyeurism, Brechtian role playing, religious guilt, the links between church, theatre and cinema, the commodification of miracles, and the exploitation of babies. As usual, he crams his tableaux vivants full of arcane visual puns and allusions to Renaissance painting. Costume and production design are typically sumptuous: Sacha Vierny's widescreen, deep-focus photography catches plenty of bawdy incident at the edges and background of the frame. Still, one has the nagging suspicion that most scenes would have worked better as photographs or paintings, to be contemplated at leisure, than as moving images. Over the past couple of years, Greenaway has been organizing exhibitions everywhere from Rotterdam to Vienna, and it seems he is having some difficulty shaking off his curatorial habits.

While The Baby of Mâcon disappoints by comparison with its predecessor Prospero's Books, boasting neither a central performance to match Gielgud's nor much of that film's technological wizardry, there is no gainsaying the virtuosity with which it is crafted. It hardly deserved its frosty reception at Cannes this year, where it was excluded from the main competition. Perhaps part of its problem is the lack of a central, Magus-like figure through whom Greenaway can filter his ideas. Gielgud's Prospero fulfilled this role to perfection, speaking every other character's lines for them, and aping the omnipotent auteur Greenaway apparently aspires to be. Pulling the strings behind the scenes on The Baby of Mâcon, there is only a humble prompter, who pipes out the baby's lines in a reedy voice, but he is little more than a commentator. Apart from him, there is the pious hypocrite, Cosimo Medici, the most honoured guest in the audience. One of the Medici clan who ruled Florence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Cosimo was renowned for his cruelty. Depicted here as a young man whose character is not fully formed, he is perhaps the most interesting figure in the film, torn between his fervent religious beliefs and his snobbery and sadism. But the director isn't much concerned with exploring his twisted psychology.

Pauline Kael once accused Greenaway of regarding a movie as “a set of theorems to be demonstrated by tableaux.” Her remark is borne out by The Baby of Mâcon. Arguably, there has always been something monstrously detached about Greenaway's work, a cold, formalist quality which suggests he has absolutely no feeling for his characters. The impression of authorial hauteur is heightened by his relish for anatomizing and re-moulding the human body. Here, we see a dead baby chopped into bits, its hands and feet sawn off by a rabble keen to exploit its ‘miracle’ birth; a horrendous rape scene; a young priest having his intestines gouged out by an angry cow in a weird skit on the nativity. We see bodies of every description: the flaccid, corpulent middle-aged dignitaries; a parade of wet nurses baring their breasts; the pock-marked bodies of the poor family locked away beneath the stage; the heaving, grotesque sight of the elderly mother in labour. A noisy, rumbustious audience is packed into the theatre to watch the drama unfold, and the film comes replete with scenes of celebration and carnival; but these are short on any sense of Rabelaisian joy or energy.

The styles of acting vary enormously. The Artaudian intensity of the naked wretch who intones the prologue is belied by the rough and ready amateur dramatic style of much of the supporting cast who, after all, are supposed to be acting in an amateur drama. The portentous dialogue doesn't help. Ralph Fiennes is well cast as the uptight priest's son whose religious convictions are confused by his lust for the supposed virgin-mother. Julia Ormond, as the teenage Madonna, combines coquetry and beatific innocence to good effect. And Jonathan Lacey is ideal as the fussy, periwigged Cosimo.

The divisions between drama and ‘reality’ are perplexing. It is hard to fathom who are characters in the audience, and who are playing parts in the masque. Presumably this blurring of distinctions is deliberate and Greenaway is asking us to question our own roles as spectators. But it is scarcely the most novel of conceits: Brecht, Godard and a host of others have already covered this territory quite adequately. Greenaway can't resist shock tactics: as the film draws to an end, the actors playing the militia become so carried away with their roles that they rape the virgin mother while the rabble mutilate the dead baby. These two acts of brutality mark a grim, repulsive finale to an uneven film which, for all its formal excellence, is a major let-down. The Baby of Mâcon is as close to a formulaic picture as Greenaway could come to making.

Peter Greenaway and Nick James (essay date November 1996)

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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 modern equivalent, so devised this story: “28 years in the life of Nagiko, a girl growing up in Japan, escaping to Hong Kong, and then coming back to Japan again.” Also structuring the narrative are 13 books of erotic poetry, each inscribed on the body of a young man and sent by Nagiko to a homosexual publisher. In one sense, not only this element, but the whole film is Greenaway's many-faceted tribute to the beauty of the Japanese calligraphic hieroglyph.

Every birthday, Nagiko's father, a calligrapher-writer, paints a birthday greeting on her face; every night, her aunt reads to her from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Aged five she spies on her father enacting through sex a contract with his publisher. As Greenaway describes it, “It's one of those Japanese doublespeak situations: I'm paying you for your work but what's really happening is that I'm paying for the sex.” When Nagiko is 18, she is married off to the publisher's nephew, who refuses to paint her face. Without this, she feels incomplete, and after her husband burns her diaries, flees Japan for Hong Kong, where she becomes a successful model and engages calligraphers to write on her body, offering them sex in exchange.

An English translator, Jerome, suggests she now begin writing on her lovers. Her first work, transcribed onto paper, is rejected—by the same publisher that once employed her father and who now has Jerome for a lover. She then seduces Jerome, and he suggests she write on his body, to reveal her work to the publisher. But Jerome forgets his bargain with Nagiko. So she begins writing her erotic poetry on other young men to gain the publisher's attention, with terrible consequences.

Greenaway is aware of using Japan, “as a Western thing of the imagination, in the way that, say, Kafka wrote about America when he'd never been there”; however, he was as much influenced by “the circumstances of working there and being encouraged by the Japanese, as a complete outsider, to make a work associated with one of their classical pieces.”

He was also attracted to an era in Japan when there was no such concept as marriage, and to “the freedom of relations between aristocratic males and females at the time. Nagiko is meant to be a modern reworking of Sei Shonagon. There are ideas in all my films about contracts being made between sex and love and money and power and art—these are the things which power the movies. My films have dealt with the whole business of sensation as seen through the eyes of the baroque in terms of excess. In phenomena like love and romance we are always looking after the Darwinian prerogative, which is simply procreation. We dress up this baseline with all sorts of incunabula and decoration. I think my films reflect that decoration, but also undermine or underline it with the idea of the contractual procreation necessity. It's there in The Draughtsman's Contract, in The Belly of an Architect, in Drowning by Numbers and it's here again.”


The visual language experiments of Prospero's Books are continued in The Pillow Book. Neither has a guilty conscience about putting the word “book” in their titles, if only because this demonstrates the equivocations of a film tradition that always starts with text before it moves on to image, which seems to suggest film-making as an illustration of text. There are various symmetries. The first film was developed from Shakespeare's The Tempest, a 400-year-old classic English text, the second from a 1000-year-old classic Japanese text, Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book. But unlike Prospero's Books, the second is a contemporary story with opportunities to open up new strategies and structures which the first deliberately kept under a tight discipline.

The overall visual metaphor for The Pillow Book is the oriental hieroglyph as a template for a cinema practice. The history of Japanese calligraphy is also the history of Japanese painting. Image and text are one. The text is read though the image, and the image is seen in the text—very possibly an ideal model for cinema, considering the uneasy marriage of text and image that it tries to cement. With the Japanese hieroglyph predominantly in mind as a model—more sinuous, more painterly perhaps than any other in the Orient—the subject of such a film would most naturally be Japanese.

To develop a contemporary story on an ancient calligraphic tradition, the language used must necessarily be very old and very new: 2000 years of calligraphic marks and ten years of computer visual invention, and a century of cinematic vocabulary. There are three particular areas of comparatively new concern: multiple screens, deconstructed chronology and a persistent changing of screen ratio.

The most famous multiple-screen experiments were in Abel Gance's Napoléon, though the possibilities set up then have rarely been exploited since, because of the prohibitive expense and severe limits of the film technology of 1929 and thereafter. The 1970s multiple-screen experiments arising out of Japan's Expo '70—and films like Grand Prix and The Thomas Crown Affair—were essentially decorative, rarely structural. Greater aesthetic investments could not come until television technology permitted it.

The break-up of traditional chronology, although suggested often enough before in film with flashbacks, flash-forwards and various dream sequence devices, was perhaps not truly regularised until Alain Resnais (with Robbe-Grillet) attempted to disarray it, binding together fact, fiction, memory and fantasy (a long-standing literary device) in an order corresponding far more to human perception and memory than does the classic start-to-finish ordering.

The third and perhaps most novel area is the ability to change the screen ratio according to ideas about the content in that screen space. Here again the cinema is not entirely innocent of such a language, in the uses of framing in the camera, in animation history, and with various long-standing optical conventions made in the laboratory. However the freedoms of the painter to choose his aspect ratio in sympathy with his content are not traditionally considered to be among a filmmaker's options.

These visual language devices are becoming familiar on television: insert frames, overlay frames, colour-coded frames, overlaid text, multiple use of text and image. All these have been major characteristics of all forms of visual advertising for some time. But their extended use, to service and structure a narrative feature film, is not at all common. The Pillow Book, tries to engage in this multiple language using a content that is sympathetic and relevant to such treatment. Here the form and the content in this case seem meant for each other; this is a film about “you are what you read,” “your life is an open page,” “I can read you like a book.” And every effort has been made always to find a rationale to bind language to content, as image and text are bound together in the Oriental hieroglyph, and never to succumb to the seduction of a purely decorative use of such potential, nor to shy from the Pleasure Principle.

The narrative demands a mixture of tenses, and the insert-frames and multiple screens can embrace images of past, present and future, not sequentially as is traditional, but all at once, arranging them in significant patterns of scale, priority, importance and colour: not necessarily in clear demarcated blocks but overlaid or interlaced to make equivalents to how we perceive time and tense. And the frame priorities can be arranged to accommodate irony, humour and criticism—to use the typical Godardian facility to make the important visually small and the trivial overwhelmingly large, or to make sleight-of-hand travel slowly, revealing the cheat as its apparent effect is demonstrated in real time. This is all arranged on one viewing plane, for an audience to make appraisal and comparison—a reach-out towards the freedoms and language that Cubism and Joyce and Eliot gave to Modernism, a movement and a philosophy and a way of construction that seems to have entirely bypassed cinema. Or maybe cinema has willingly bypassed Modernism.

Using other possibilities of the complex frame construction, referential visual quotes are made of East and West, of the old and the new; in particular the dominant Western tradition of the Renaissance viewing-frame and that of the largely unframed Oriental picture space: the scroll and the hanging vertical ‘picture,’ or the ‘un-edged’ vistas of folding screens and ‘endless’ wraparound landscapes of Oriental ceramics, and the insert-vignettes of Japanese prints. The film borrows the device of the calligraphic chop-signatures [the personalised stamp-marks that identified a particular calligraphic artist], for making imprimaturs of other kinds. These it uses to negotiate conflicting Western left-to-right and Eastern right-to-left readings. The Western left-to-right reading indicates positive action, spelling confusion to any true reading of Japanese text and image combinations, while the Eastern right-to-left reading seems unbalanced to a Western sensibility, uncorrectable in a mirror and even morally confusing (especially if we believe that, in the West, evil enters stage-right).

One hopes the film to be full of such attempts to marry form and content, under the banner of the example of the hieroglyph that unites image and text. The images that are here are not necessarily the most imaginative in this area, but all contribute something to the idea of making the search.

Mariacristina Cavecchi (essay date 1997)

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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 between Prospero's Books and The Tempest, I am suggesting that the filmmaker reinterprets the Shakespearean text as a mannerist text and creates a new, artificial, and mannerist world by making use of devices and techniques which constitute a cinematic equivalent to Shakespeare's theatrical illusionism. He exasperates and amplifies those aspects, which were already there in Shakespeare, where the sense of the crisis makes itself felt most fully and explicitly (Hoy 49–67),2 namely the meta-dramatic reflection upon the concept of art and the work of art-artist-spectator relationship and the mannerist tendency to disrupt the spatial unity and to combine things from different spheres of reality (Hauser).

In spite of his cinematic translation and exasperation of certain Shakespearean “tricks,” the filmmaker imposes his meaning on the original text and, by reducing it to a formal mechanism and to a huge stock of images and languages, he creates his own cerebral world which, in turn, offers him the opportunity for a discourse upon the cinema. The film is directed by a filmmaker who is also a painter, who tries to redefine the properties of the filmic frame. Greenaway's magic, like Prospero's, is a strange mixture of science and art. If Shakespeare, like Prospero, is a playwright who exploits all his “charms” (Tempest 1)3—namely, the technical tricks of his days, to stage “the direful spectacle of the wrack” (I.ii.26)—Greenaway uses both conventional film techniques and the resources of high-definition television to layer image upon image, superimposing a second or third frame within his frame. As a matter of fact, his use of the digital Graphic Paintbox, which he defines as the “newest Gutenberg technology” (Greenaway, Prospero's Books 28),4 offers a relatively new way of producing cinematic space; and the frame, no longer two-dimensional, reveals multiple layers of spatial dimension. One of those layers refers to the plot traced by Shakespeare's plays; the others are not chronologically or spatially continuous with previous frames. Since Greenaway's premise is that Gonzalo stowed away twenty-four magic books on the leaky boat he provided for Prospero and Miranda's escape from Italy, his film opens each book, offering the spectator the possibility to read Prospero's developing play in relation to the books he has already read. Each book is placed over the frame of the play's action, only partially covering the image, so that it gives virtually every frame at least two space-time orientations.

The film shows the enactment of the plot of The Tempest as Prospero writes and delivers it. We see and hear Prospero building up the scene before us while we simultaneously witness him taking pleasure in this creation. The magical force of his words conjures up his characters before our eyes in elaborate dumb shows.

Within the space of a completely artificial world Greenaway offers his audience spatial dynamics that counterbalance Shakespeare's dramaturgical design. Throughout his film Greenaway/Prospero creates two different space fields: the space of word and the space of image. The word/image juxtaposition parallels not only the relationship of a playwright to a scene—of Prospero/dramatist to Prospero/actor—but also that of a filmmaker to his spatial field. Prospero's activities can thus be interpreted as a metaphor for director Greenaway's filmmaking strategies and for Gielgud's long career as a Shakespearean actor. What prevails is this deeply complex identification, Prospero-Gielgud-Greenaway-Shakespeare, which is crucial in a film characterized by the continuous interplay of parallel creations, reflections, overlaps, and duplications.


Greenaway experiments with the possible relationships between the word pronounced, written, and materialized; and in the film there is an extraordinary amount of writing: words etched—in air, on water, in stone, on parchment, in the image itself—create a dimension of writing, unusual for the cinema. In addition, Prospero's books are obviously placed prominently and written pages and sheets of paper are scattered throughout the film. The film is also highly literary and self-referential in its constant reminders that The Tempest is a text: Greenaway conceives the play as Prospero's own creation and we see the magician-playwright speaking each verse until the final act, as well as his pen as it moves across the parchment. The recurring image of the inkwell is like a “magician's hat” (Rodgers 15), where anything can appear, as an acknowledgment of Shakespeare's creation of the original text. According to Greenaway himself, the film “deliberately emphasizes and celebrates the text as text, as the master material on which all the magic, illusion and deception of the play is based” (9). As a matter of fact, from the very beginning Greenaway emphasizes the importance of books, and the film opens with Gielgud as a voice-over uttering the words from The Tempest as he writes them in close-up: “Knowing I lov'd my books, he furnis'd me / From mine own library with volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (I.ii.166–68).

Greenaway presents shots of Prospero standing white and naked, like a De la Tour St. Jerome or a Bellini St. Anthony (Prospero's Books 39–40),5 in a bathhouse, which he deftly contrasts with his close-ups of words being written on a blank sheet of crisp, off-white paper. Prospero begins to conjure up the idea of a scenario for a storm by using the single word “boatswain.”6 He plays with this word by experimenting with different recitative styles and by repeating it ruminatively, curiously, interrogatively, while close-ups of the word, handwritten on a sheet of paper, repeatedly fill the screen. The evocation of the word “boatswain” in conjunction with the first book of the film, which is the Book of Water, supposedly compiled by Leonardo Da Vinci,7 opens the film; and this link between the ink and the tempest in a game of interference between the graphic sign and the image referent is significant.


Thanks to the classical/manneristic columns of the bathing room, the architectural capriccios scaled prophetically to Piranesi's Romanticism, the books superimposed, and the connotation of characters and situations with reference to precise figures and tableaux vivants in the history of painting, there is an artificiality about that world, deeply reminiscent of the theater itself. But the spectacle of the shipwreck is enhanced by a plurality and density of images, achievable only through cinema.

Thus the tempest is created through an accumulation of metaphors: a series of associations with watery elements, linked together by the recurring image (and the loud and abrupt noise) of drops of water splashing—in slow motion—into a black pool, probably also an echo of Gonzago's words “every drops of water swear against it” (I.i.56) and authorial self-reference to the first sequence of Greenaway's film Making a Splash (1984). Pages from the Book of Water are the first to be framed with their drawings of seas and climate and with the small design of an ink-drawn galleon floating on the choppy water. This same three-masted galleon (or a similar one) is soon seen in the hands of Prospero, who sets it on the bath water where it trembles and bucks in the rough water caused by the urinating (but the word used by Greenaway in his film script is “peeing”) Ariel—a Spirit of Air inspired by the dancing child in Bronzino's mannerist masterpiece Allegory of Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time.8 As Prospero, in the bathhouse, is confronted by a mirror-image from the Book of Mirrors of the drenched ship's company, the storm he has conjured up becomes a reality (but one might ask which level of reality) and on the line “Out of our way, I say!” the sound track suddenly grows more complex with the “massive burst of musical sound” by Michael Nyman (Greenaway 43). When the peak of magic is attained we see a pattern of alternative images of smiling Ariel, hovering above the edge of the bath-side and still urinating into the pool; of a full screen flame (appearing eight times throughout the sequence), probably an echo of the strong perception of fire in Ariel's vision of the shipwreck in The Tempest (I.ii. 196–206); and of Prospero dressing himself with linen under-robe and a black cloak, magically changing its color, to look like the Venetian Doge Leonardo Loredan in Bellini's portrait.

At the very beginning of the film the audience realizes that Greenaway attempts to create a very particular kind of illusionism. In the decision to create an outdoor effect indoors, the filmmaker follows Shakespeare's mounting a storm complete with a shipwreck on an indoor stage.9

Indeed in Shakespeare it is a bravura staging device and the effect dictates the ruling conceit for the whole play. The Tempest, in fact, depends on the initial illusionism of the shipwreck scene, which is the verification of Prospero's magic and the declaration that it is all the work of illusion, a harmless “spectacle” (I.ii.26). Against the scenery of the Banqueting House at Whitehall,10 the shipwreck is set off by Prospero's magic, consisting in scenic and mechanical skills, the same magic Inigo Jones deployed in his masques. At the beginning of the play the spectators watch the “direful spectacle of the wrack,” which they recognize as having the conventions of Elizabethan courtly drama. There is nothing in the text to suggest any doubt about what they are seeing and the brief scene is marvelously evocative as well as terminologically exact. But this first perception of the shipwreck is then replaced by the compelling pictures of Miranda's (I.ii. 1–13) and Ariel's (I.ii. 195–206) perspectives, alluding to the other spectacle of the theatrical devices employed to mount the storm.11 The pattern of shifting perception (Pierce 167–73) characterizes The Tempest as a play which consistently arouses, challenges, and disappoints the spectators' expectations. The audience is being kept in suspense and like the courtiers in the shipwreck is never shown which layer of illusionism is presented on the stage.

In Prospero's Books, the image of the model galleon, which is also a hint at the special effects of the cinema (since many storm scenes have been shot using model ships), is followed by an accumulation of images and figures taken from literature and painting and therefore existing at a different level of reality (or illusion). Spirits impersonating classical and Old Testament myths associated with water—such as Moses, Leda, Neptune, a drowning Icarus, Jason, Hero, Leander, and Noah—indicate the growth and wrath of the storm.12 The storm is also visualized through reference to painting and in particular, according to Greenaway himself, to Botticelli's Birth of Venus: the storm of papers swirling around the library, constructed to look like a facsimile copy of Michelangelo's Laurentiana Library in Florence, is in fact stirred up by naked mythological figures standing on tables, grouped in pairs, their cheeks puffed out, like Botticelli's winds. But, as a matter of fact, this intertextual reference to the winds also has a different source, since Robert Fludd used the image of the blowing winds in the frontispiece of his Meteorologia Cosmica (Yates 60), which is a source of inspiration for Greenaway's Book of Universal Cosmography.

In the film, far from any attempt at realism, Prospero's island has become a place of illusion and deception, full of superimposed images, shifting mirrors, and mirror images where pictures conjured by texts, such as the one of the galleon, can be “as tantalizingly substantial as objects; and facts and events constantly framed and reframed” (12). Thus, the film's multilayered narrative, with Prospero writing the story in which he is also a character, is matched by a kaleidoscope of images inset in other images so that Shakespeare's island “full of noises” (III.ii.133) and voices, since Prospero's is just one of the possible versions of the story—Caliban's, for example, is a different one—has become an island overflowing with superimposed images derived from the original text by association and contiguity.

In the film I have identified three main kinds of relationships between the images which contribute to visual density: frames-within-frames, mirrored images, and iterated images.


In Prospero's Books framing and re-framing becomes “like a text itself—a motif—reminding the viewer that it is all an illusion which is constantly fitted into a rectangle, into a picture frame—a film frame” (12). The recurring geometrical figure of the film—that of a rectangle, alluding to the frame, to the proscenium arch stage, and also to the cinema screen—reveals Greenaway's deep concern with the medium he is using, so that the references to theater, literature, and painting contribute to his self-conscious reflection upon the cinema, its nature, and its possibilities. Thus, there is an interesting coincidence between the number of the books and the twenty-four frames a second in cinema, and often in the film the camera frames Prospero's image reflected in a TV screen; in particular, at the end of the film, on the last lines of the Epilogue, the camera retreats on Prospero's close-up to show, disruptively, that it is a close-up on a huge screen.

Greenaway uses the frame-within-frame as the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeare's play-within-play: it offers him the possibility to analyze the work of art/artist/spectator relationship; and, besides, however imperfectly, each frame-within-frame undermines the credibility of the surrounding action. He not only revives this Shakespearean device but he also exasperates and exploits it to the utmost so that almost every frame contains a frame within or refers to one outside the screen by means of intertextual quotations to literature, architecture, art, etc.

Frame-within-frames and mirrors contribute to that representation of different kinds and levels of reality, which is a feature Shakespeare himself shared with sixteenth-century mannerist painting (Hoy 49–67).

In The Tempest Shakespeare deals centrally with ideas and concepts of art, and in Prospero's magic he gives full expression to a theme close to the core of his artistic self-consciousness. Despite its realistic dialogue and details, the shipwreck is a show, and in the Epilogue (1–20) Shakespeare deliberately eliminates any barrier between the play world and the real. The audience is invited to enter the play world and assume a role since their hands must release Prospero and their “gentle breath” (Epilogue 11) supply the “auspicious gales” (V.i.314) which he has promised Alonso. The Epilogue thus serves as a bridge between play and audience: a transitional link between art and reality (Egan 171–82).

The artful world of Prospero's Books is built upon different levels of illusion as well: the world of animated books melts into the world of the written words on the off-white pages and into the images of the bathing room with its many columns. The model ship itself enjoys different levels of illusion since it is at the same time an animated picture in a book, a model galleon on the desk of Prospero/dramatist, a toy in his hands as actor, and it is actually the ship transporting the members of the court. In addition, the film animates textual images: the Vesalius Anatomy of Birth disgorges bloody organs, while from the Book of Architecture three-dimensional buildings spring out like models in a pop-up book and Prospero is shown descending “textual” stairs. Furthermore, each character enjoys inter-textual links with literature and painting and the island is referenced with the architecture, paintings, and classical literature Prospero has imported. Greenaway delights in baffling the audience as to where reality (if there is one) actually turns into illusion.


Mirrors are also recurrent in the film, adding a further layer of illusion and therefore a further element of confusion between reality and illusion. But these mirrors, held by minions and spirits of a Roman/Greek/Renaissance mythology, are very particular “distorting mirrors” (Eco 25–28) since they reflect Prospero's imaginings—good and bad—as though he always needs a mirror to make them manifest. In the first sequences of the film we first see Prospero reflected in the carried mirror and soon after, with a flash, the mirror shows what Prospero sees, the victims of the storm.

The recurring rectangular mirrors contribute to enrich the “framing game” and, because of their nature, to disrupt the link mirror image/image referent,13 therefore reflecting optical illusions.


As a matter of fact, repetition is a fundamental recurring stylistic device in The Tempest. Lexical repetition is largely responsible for the incantatory appeal of The Tempest (Bower 131–50, McDonald 15–28).

In the same way the film derives much of its metaphoric power from the interplay of repeated images during a sequence, such as the images of the galleon or of the inkwell, or the visual allusions to fire and water. In addition, the Shakespearean text undergoes a further process of duplication; just to quote an example from the first scenes, Shakespearean lines such as “Bestir, bestir” (I.i.4) or “Here, master: what cheer?” (I.i.2), and on the one hand, are repeated more than once as if they were an echo effect, and on the other hand, are also reiterated by Prospero's writing them in full screen many times. In the film the characters are multiplied, too: Gielgud interprets two Prosperos and Ariel is played by four actors.

Verbal patterns are congruent with and supported by larger networks of reiteration, most of them narrative and structural; the symmetries and parodic constructions are obvious in The Tempest and many critics have pointed to the density and congruity of its mirrored actions, which are even more emphasized in Greenaway where the mechanism of doubling is further amplified by multiple intertextual references. The Tempest is also flagrantly intertextual and this audacious kind of authorial self-cannibalism contributes another layer of complexity, on which Greenaway himself feeds (Liberti 24).

The prominence of the figure of repetition in both the verbal style and dramatic structure of The Tempest encourages the audience to analyze the linguistic and structural patterns for meaning, but the text never fulfills the expectations of clarity which the discovery of such patterns engenders (McDonald 15–17). Since order and comprehension are continually promised but never thoroughly realized, the audience participates directly in the atmosphere of evanescence and instability of the play.

Iteration of images, characters' multiple layers of illusion, mirrors and frame-within-frames in Prospero's Books work in the same way and carry out the same function to entice the audience by promising and withholding illumination, demonstrating the impossibility of “significational certainty and creating an atmosphere of hermeneutic instability” (McDonald 16). As a matter of fact, Greenaway's film is informed with a precise pattern made up of the twenty-four magic books,14 but this pattern is built up by an intricate network of allusions and intertextual references so that, in the end, the filmmaker provides the elements of spectacle but leaves the task of ordering them to the viewer, who becomes, therefore, the final interpreter of the film's shape.15 The audience is thus established as the subject of the film, occupying a polysemic site where a multiplicity of possible meanings and intertextual relations intersect. To the Shakespearean text Greenaway adds a visual and conceptual density that seems to defy any possibility of finding a stable pattern or meaning. What Derrida terms “the seminal adventure of the trace” (Structure Sign and Play 265) is nowhere better exemplified than in Greenaway's film. We move around among the sights, sounds, and accidentals which constitute the film, assembling and disassembling meanings as they fleetingly present themselves.

Prospero's Books is a cultural caprice: The flow of textuality overflows the traditional barriers of what we use to call a “text” into what Derrida calls a “differential network, a fabric of traces, referring endlessly to something other than itself” (qtd. in Atkins and Bergeron 40). The visual and symbolic hyper-stratification and the endless process of quotations lead to a disruption of the filmic unity so that the film absorbs The Tempest's imagery and text and turns into an encyclopedic container of images drawn from literature, painting, architecture, music, etc. By presenting too much to take in at a glance, Greenaway pushes to the limit his ideal of a “painterly cinema” (Masson 36–37) and to complete the effect, text, image, and sound constantly blur into each other in an infinite overlapping of languages and images: “Words making text, and text making pages, and pages making books from which knowledge is fabricated in pictorial form” (Greenaway, Prospero's Books 9).

Like the written word, the oral word also changes into a visual image: The linguistic richness and nuances of Shakespeare's characters turn into the powerful and authoritative, but monotone, voice of Gielgud-Prospero, who speaks the Shakespearean lines aloud, shaping the characters so powerfully through his words that they are conjured before us. In Greenaway's mannerist (or post-modern) interpretation, the Shakespearean word becomes flesh, or metal, or any of the other metamorphoses the books exhibit. A mannerist hieroglyphic. A post-modern hieroglyphic. Celluloid. Cinema.


  1. “Since the film is deliberately built and shaped around the writing of the text of The Tempest, the script follows the play, act by act and scene by scene, with few transpositions and none of any substance to alter the chronology of the original. There have been some shortenings, the greatest being the comedy scenes with Stephano and Trinculo” (Greenaway, Prospero's Books 12).

  2. See also Georg Weise, II Manierismo (Firenze: Olschki, 1976).

  3. The Arden edition of The Tempest has been adopted throughout this study.

  4. See also John Wrathall, “Mosaic Mindscapes,” Screen International 824 (September 13, 1991): 16–18; and Michael Ciment, “Une conflagration de l'art,” Positif 368 (October 1991): 43.

  5. See also Liberti 22–24.

  6. In an interview with Adam Barker, Greenaway notes that the first word of the play is “Bosun … which is a very interesting word because it is one that is never written down. It was used by seamen who were basically illiterate, so that when they came to write the word down it was 'boatswain. It's a nice opening point about the topsy-turvy use of oral and written language” (28).

  7. According to Greenaway, Da Vinci “was an indefatigable enthusiast for the quality, motion and substance of water and an ideal authority to consult in the creation of a tempest” (Prospero's Books 38). It is also to note the fascinating analogy between Leonardo's calligraphy in his drawings and Greenaway-Prospero's handwriting. See also J. Kott, “Prospero's Staff,” Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London: Methuen, 1964): 197–202.

  8. It is Greenaway himself who gives the indication in Prospero's Books 42.

  9. The Tempest was the first play Shakespeare unquestionably wrote for the Blackfriars rather than for the Globe. It was besides presented by Shakespeare's company at court on Hallowmas Eve in 1611 and again during the winter of 1612–13, as part of the astonishing round of entertainment provided during the period of the Elector's visit, particularly between the betrothal and the marriage. See Frank Kermode's introduction to The Tempest, Arden Edition, xxixxii.

  10. A sustained attempt to visualize a court performance of the play is Sir Ernest Law's “Shakespeare's Tempest as originally produced at Court,” Shakespeare Association Pamphlet (1919).

  11. For a visualization of the performance see also Anna Anzi Cavallone, Varie e strane forme. Shakespeare: il masque e il gusto manieristico (Milano: Edizioni Unicopli, 1984): 55–61.

  12. In one of the sections of Greenaway's exhibition Watching Water (Venice, Palazzo Fortuny, June-September 1993), the video A Walk through Prospero's Library (1991) presents one by one all the characters that in Prospero's Books are somehow connected with water.

  13. The expression “image referent” is my translation of Eco's referente dell'immagine (20; see also 9–37).

  14. “I have not infrequently made use of mathematical structures, numbers and counting as an adjunct and companion to the narrative of a film. As author in control of the plot I can choose and dictate the fall-out of events from any number of infinite possibilities—which is a very volatile state of affairs, suggesting the ephemerality of fictional narrative”; (Greenaway, Watching Water 28).

  15. “I am interested in an audience that moves, that is not necessarily subject to a fixed frame, that does not have to remain in a fixed seat. Audiences that move are not unknown, but they are rare. Should we attempt to achieve audience movement as a prerequisite of cinema” (Greenaway, Watching Water 49)?

Works Cited

Atkins, G. Douglas, and D. M. Bergeron. Shakespeare and Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

Barker, Adam. “A Tale of Two Magicians.” Sight and Sound (May 1991).

Brower, Reuben A. “The Mirror of Analogy.” Shakespeare: The Tempest: Casebook Series. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Buchman, Lorne M. “Spatial Multiplicity: Pattern of Viewing in Cinematic Space.” Still in Movement. Shakespeare on Screen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure Sign and Play.” The Structuralist Controversy. Ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1970.

Eco, Umberto. “Freaks: gli specchi deformanti.” Sugli specchie e altri saggi. Milano: Bompiani, 1985.

Egan, Robert. “This Rough Magic: Perspectives of Art and Morality in The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly XXIII. No. 2 (Spring 1972).

Greenaway, Peter. Prospero's Books: A Film of Shakespeare's The Tempest. London: Chatto & Windus, 1991.

Greenaway, Peter. Watching Water. Milano: Electa, 1993.

Hauser, Arnold. Der Manierismus. Die Krise der Renaissance und der modernen Kunst. Munchen: C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Oscar Beck, 1964.

Hoy, Cyrus. “Jacobean Tragedy and the Mannerist Style.” Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973).

Liberti, Fabrizio. “Autoreferenzialità di Prospero's Books.Cineforum 311 (Jan.-Feb. 1992).

Liberti, Fabrizio. “Prospero e San Girolamo.” Cineforum 311 (Jan.-Feb. 1992).

Masson, Alain. “This Insubstantial Pageant: Prospero's Books.Positif 368 (Oct. 1991).

McDonald, Russ. “Reading The Tempest.Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production 43 (1991).

Pierce, Robert B. “Very Like A Whale: Scepticism and Seeing in The Tempest.Shakespeare Survey 38 (1965).

Rodgers, Marlene. “Prospero's Books—Word and Spectacle. An Interview with Peter Greenaway.” Film Quarterly 45.2 (Winter 1991–92).

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Arden edition. London: Methuen, 1989.

Yates, Frances. Theatre of the World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Kenneth Turan (review date 6 June 1997)

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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 earlier works like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and Prospero's Books both an air of smug pretension and a cold and gleeful delight in the poetry of excess.

There can be no doubt that Greenaway, working as usual with veteran cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who shot both Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad for Alain Resnais), is an exceptional visual stylist with an aesthetic that prides itself on being self-consciously artistic.

But Pillow Book demonstrates, as do the others, the limits of style as a filmmaking be-all and end-all. A director who communicates sparingly with his actors if at all, Greenaway doesn't notice or care about the dramatic weakness of his films. If they look spectacular, as they inevitably do, that is enough for him.

In this, Greenaway can be seen as the art-house equivalent of blockbuster-oriented French director Luc Besson, whose The Fifth Element, the most expensive film ever made in Europe, is similarly contemptuous of all but the flimsiest forms of emotional connection. For these directors and the audience they appeal to, surface sensation is all that matters.

Told in both Japanese and English, The Pillow Book explores the life of Nagiko, introduced as a child in Kyoto whose master calligrapher father (Ken Ogata) paints a greeting on her face every year on her birthday.

On the same day her aunt reads to her from one of the classics of Japanese literature, The Pillow Book, a 10th century journal and collection of lists written by Sei Shonagon. One of the pleasures of this Pillow Book is the beautiful way Greenaway and Vierny illustrate the book's “List of Splendid Things,” displaying a large garden covered in snow or indigo-colored flowers.

As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Nagiko (Vivian Wu of The Last Emperor and The Joy Luck Club) becomes increasingly obsessed with having herself written on, even taking calligraphic prowess into account when considering potential lovers.

Nagiko also feels haunted by a sense of unfinished business with her father's publisher (Yoshi Oida), a predatory homosexual who has had a murky relationship with her parent that has always discomfited her.

Moving to Hong Kong, Nagiko meets a dilettantish English translator named Jerome (Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor) who, to compensate for his poor calligraphy, offers his body for her to write on. This reversal doesn't end well, but Nagiko embraces the general idea, and before the movie is finished, she carefully inscribes 11 different books on the skins of a series of full frontally nude young men.

All this is illustrated in the most lavish style possible, with images overlapping and blending into one another. The screen is split any number of times and any number of ways, including a black strip left along the bottom to accommodate elegantly written subtitles. Stately and hypnotic, The Pillow Book is best appreciated as a series of visuals slowly washing over the mind.

But minds tend to be pesky things, demanding more than visual pleasures, and The Pillow Book, with mechanical, undirected line readings adding to its problems, is much too icy to play half as interesting as it may sound. For all his skill, Greenaway wants to be no more than a puppet master, and puppets, though beautiful, have limitations of their own.

John Simon (review date 14 July 1997)

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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 obsessive compulsive.

A thousand years ago, Sei Shonagon, lady-in-waiting to the Imperial Court during the Heian dynasty, kept a diary of her thoughts, feelings, and experiences (chiefly amorous)—The Pillow Book, a Japanese classic. A chiliad later, Greenaway tells the story of Nagiko, who grows up in the same city of Kyoto, the daughter of a writer and calligrapher. On her every birthday, while her aunt reads out loud from The Pillow Book, her father writes (paints) an ancient creation myth on the child's face and nape. After which he must trundle off to his publisher and blackmailer, and submit to him sexually. Eventually Nagiko is forced to marry the publisher's cloddish son, who burns her books and diaries, whereupon she runs off to Hong Kong.

There she first works as a waitress, but soon becomes a top fashion model. She is obsessed with calligraphy on her body, first executed by herself. Dissatisfied, she takes a series of calligrapher-lovers, searching for the ideal one. But the best calligraphers are not the best lovers, and vice versa. Moreover, if they are old, they have “a penis like a sea slug or a pickled cucumber”; if they are young, “they are easily distracted.” Finally, she meets a young Englishman, Jerome, a translator, with whom she falls in love: alas, he is also the lover of the same evil publisher, who now operates out of Hong Kong. Parenthetically, there is no excuse for Greenaway to be there either, except for a final fling before the Chinese spoilsports take over.

Jerome opens up a new world to Nagiko: he gets her to write on his body; thus she who was paper becomes the pen. She writes a poem on her lover's body that he, in turn, presents to his lover, who scorns it, and won't publish it. Jealous and angry, Nagiko locks Jerome out; as a ploy, he attempts a pretend suicide that unfortunately turns out real. Nagiko, distraught, vows vengeance, especially after the publisher secretly exhumes Jerome and skins him, processing the poem he bears into a one-of-a-kind deluxe book.

Back in Kyoto now, Nagiko begins a series of 13 poems that entrance the publisher. She sends them to him, one by one, on the bodies of various oddly assorted men. He drools, while his staff transcribe the poetry for publication. The 13th and last messenger bodies forth, in black lettering, the Book of Death; a sumo wrestler, he slits the publisher's throat. Nagiko acquires and buries Jerome's skin-book, and dedicates herself to bringing up her daughter by him, to whom she regularly reads from The Pillow Book.

This is a drastic abridgment of what happens in the movie, but loony as it may sound, the movie is loonier. Throughout, there are visual and verbal quotations from The Pillow Book, with flashbacks to Sei Shonagon. These usually appear in small squares popping up in various parts of the screen. There are also flashbacks to Nagiko's past, and all sorts of split screens and superimpositions, different sorts of writing superimposed on scenes of action. Also ceaseless repetition of words and images. Thus the film becomes three or four times its already unendurable two-hour length. There are also elaborate subtitles, an oppressive melange of sundry kinds of music, and a babel of foreign, often untranslated, tongues. The overload becomes overwhelming.

And always, as a substratum, the naked bodies of Nagiko and the various men being slowly, painstakingly, beautifully written on—actually painted on, with those softly phallic brushes—as pictograms sinuously espouse somatic shapes and contours. Fun for a while but, unless you share this esoteric fetishism, soon exhausting. The stated purpose is to fuse flesh and text, copulation and literature: two great human passions inextricably melded. And all so intricately allusive and elusive that, by film's end, I was ready to give up both sex and writing.

Vivian Wu is appealing and competent as Nagiko, but finally not quite actress or sexpot enough to draw the spectator into a folie a deux. The rising young Scottish star Ewan McGregor is winning as Jerome, and both supporting players and walk-ons (or write-ons) are cunningly chosen. Sacha Vierny's cinematography, artfully combining full color and monochrome, is mesmeric, and there is every kind of visual opulence. It is all rather like a 12-course dinner consumed not consecutively but simultaneously. Not even after an Eric Rohmer film did emerging into the fresh air feel so blissfully liberating.

Jacqui Sadashige (review date December 1997)

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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 miscellany covering the years Shōnagon spent as lady-in-waiting to Empress Sadako—Greenaway's film The Pillow Book chronicles the experiences of its female narrator and “author” Nagiko (Vivian Wu) in an elite world of letters.

The powers and pleasures of writing are imprinted on Nagiko from birth; each year, her father (Ken Ogata) recites a myth of creation while writing a birthday blessing on her face. As an adult, Nagiko escapes a boorish husband by fleeing to Hong Kong. Once there, she obsessively seeks out calligrapher-lovers to write on her body until a British translator, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), persuades her to try writing on him. By the film's end, Nagiko authors her own text: a series of thirteen books artfully penned on the bodies of men. Thus, at one level, The Pillow Book traces Nagiko's development from artistic object to subject, text to writer.

Like Greenaway's previous works, however, The Pillow Book resists reduction to a single narrative. For this reason, the disjunctive and occasional nature of Shōnagon's Pillow Book—which includes character sketches, musings on nature, and 164 lists (for instance, “Elegant Things,” “Poetic Subjects,” and “Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster”)—lends itself well to Greenaway's style of filmmaking. Voice-over readings from the text occur throughout the film, accompanied by color-saturated scenes depicting Heian court life and exquisite visual compositions illustrating several lists. Repeated citations of Shōnagon's text invite comparison between the author and Nagiko, between tenth-century Japan and the present.

The dual time frame, itself an unstable structure, enables an exploration of subjectivity—in particular, the forces exerted on it by familial structures and cultural legacies. On Nagiko's fourth birthday (we learn in a flashback), her aunt (Hideko Yoshida) gives her a copy of Shōnagon's Pillow Book and begins reading aloud from it; on her sixth, she begins her own pillow book. The private nature of the pillow book combines with the figure of Shōnagon (whom Greenaway portrays less as a courtier than as a woman dedicated to the twinned pleasures of writing and sex) to offer a model for the negotiation of female authorship and agency within the highly ritualized and male-dominated spheres of the Heian court and Nagiko's family. Because Shōnagon's authorship both parallels and enables Nagiko's own, it undermines the sense that Nagiko is simply the product of her father's influence.

Emerging from the doubled background of family and culture—her father and Shōnagon—Nagiko becomes both the written-on page and the marking hand, a hybrid subject who manifests the pleasures of the text. An item from Nagiko's own list of “Things That Make the Heart Beat Faster” provides a telling example of Greenaway's textual erotics. As a voice-over pronounces, “love in the afternoon, in imitation of history,” an image of Jerome and Nagiko appears; it is glossed by an inset Edo shunga print mirroring their sex act. The intrusion of the aesthetic makes clear that, although The Pillow Book vexes the distinction between subject and object, dominance and submission, its slippages never wholly transcend the privileged world of arts and letters.

Finally, geographical movement complicates the film's temporal divisions. The Pillow Book shifts from Japan to Hong Kong and back to Japan. Yet scenes of tenth-century Japan and contemporary Hong Kong are shot in brilliant color, while those depicting Nagiko's life in Japan are often rendered in black and white, deliberately echoing the work of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi (“A Cinematic Melting Pot,” American Cinematographer [December 1996]: 99–105). In this way, contemporary Japan appears curiously outdated, almost quaint in comparison to the dense multiculturalism and blinding pace of Hong Kong—itself a spatial analogue to the figure of Nagiko.

Just as Nagiko embodies a modern counterpart to Shōnagon, Hong Kong—at least the pre-July 1997 Hong Kong that Greenaway celebrates—finds its complement in the Heian court. A certain formalism characterizes Greenaway's representation of imperial Japan, but Hong Kong—with its blur of languages and cultures—seems, like Nagiko, to move beyond simple categorization and epitomize the postmodern thrills of excess and in-betweenness. Although some may take issue with Greenaway's elision of the British imperial presence in Hong Kong, viewing it as nostalgia for empire, this strategy ultimately foregrounds the differences among various Asian cultures. In doing so, The Pillow Book actively contests still-pervasive notions of a culturally and ethnically uniform “Orient,” while its kaleidoscopic brilliance makes the heart beat faster.

David Drew (review date 4 December 1998)

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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 of technical excellence and artistic daring that may or may not impress other financially embattled opera houses in Europe. In any event, it is timely. The issues it raises have diverse ramifications on both sides of the Atlantic, and far beyond the relatively narrow confines of the opera world.

Christophe Colomb first saw the light of day in May 1930, only six months after the Wall Street crash and the consequent flight of American capital. The evening ended in uproar, and was followed by a storm of protest from conservative and nationalist quarters, not least in the Prussian Landtag. But regular opera-goers had been given to understand that this was Kleiber's most important contribution to modern opera since the already legendary premiere of Alban Berg's Wozzeck in December 1925. Despite the ever-worsening political and economic situation, the multi-media production continued to attract audiences, and the Staatsoper was able to bring it back a season later.

By May 1930, Prussia's civil servants and their political masters already had good reason to note that Kleiber had called 100 chorus rehearsals and twenty-five orchestral rehearsals for Christophe Colomb. Though almost as many as he had demanded for Wozzeck in the palmy days of 1925, it was not an extravagance. Granted that, in certain respects, Christophe Colomb is almost childishly simple compared to Wozzeck, in others it is equally demanding, especially for singers and orchestras not steeped in French music from Berlioz onwards.

Whereas a successful performance of Wozzeck in a small provincial opera house had soon rescued the work from the exceptional conditions of the Kleiber production, Christophe Colomb had no such luck. It had been launched in bad weather, and would not have survived had it not been taken up by Pierre Monteux and then successfully promoted as a concert and radio opera, on a circuit from Prague to London via Paris and Brussels. The first French staging was in Marseilles in 1985, thirty years after Claudel's death and eleven after Milhaud's. The only German-language staging prior to the present one was in the Austrian city of Graz, in 1992—the centenary of Milhaud's birth and the quincentenary of Columbus's first voyage.

Those anniversaries had served to highlight one problem which the Staatsoper has neatly sidestepped, and another that Greenaway and Boddeke have confronted head-on. Clearly, the Staatsoper had little to gain from Milhaud's current and worldwide reputation as a composer of a few entertaining and highly successful “trifles,” such as Scaramouche and Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a single major-minor (master-)piece, La Création du monde, and an impenetrable forest of opus numbers extending far into the four hundreds. While Milhaud was in effect a lost cause and could with apparent safety be marginalized by the Staatsoper and its directorate, the muted celebrations and post-colonial revisionism attending the Columbus quincentenary were a recent memory. Greenaway and Boddeke have taken it to heart.

In a recent interview in Berlin's TIP magazine, Greenaway modestly justified his involvement by claiming that Christophe Colomb was “originally conceived as film and not as opera.” (Though the true story is extremely complicated, the essential facts are simple: after several years of preliminary work, Claudel wrote the first definitive draft of Christophe Colomb during the summer of 1927, and insisted that Milhaud come at once to his home in Brangues in order to read Act One and discuss it with him before his imminent departure for Washington to take up his new post as French Ambassador. Milhaud came, was understandably overwhelmed, and decided then and there to postpone the three-act historical tragedy, Maximilien, which he had been on the point of starting.) “For me,” declares Boddeke, in the same interview, “Milhaud is very important … and it is the music that provides the basis for my work.” The same is surely true for the Staatsoper's young conductor, Philippe Jordan, who deserves much credit for defending most of Milhaud's score from the usual depredations, and little blame for sacrificing two vital positions which were doubtless untenable in the context of Greenaway's central thesis. “Viewed from today,” Greenaway maintains, “Claudel's and Milhaud's conception and presentation are thoroughly naive; where Claudel tries to make a saint of Columbus, we will be ironic.”

In case readers of TIP missed the point, Boddeke returns to it:

Milhaud and Claudel want their opera to make [Columbus] a saint. So he is a positive figure in it. And I remember that Columbus was a hero for me, too, when I was a child, because he had discovered a new world. But we came to realize that Columbus is no hero. He was a pioneer who walked over corpses. A few weeks ago we [went] to Brazil and saw that, out there, Columbus's image was anything but positive. That experience we are bringing along with us.

And so they have done, with the aid of an astounding array of computerized graphics, images and projections, brilliantly produced by Kees Kasander and a team of nine specialists. Nine is also the number of projection-surfaces exploited throughout the performance, almost always in variously complex combinations.

Claudel and Milhaud were not trying to “make a saint” of Columbus or even a hero of him. Although they had to make do with a single back-of-stage screen, it was a large one, as it had to be in order to accommodate the projections designed by the Greek artist Panos Aravantinos and the films made by the Staatsoper's chief Regisseur and his technical assistants. For its time, the technology was as advanced as the Staatsoper's today. While Aravantinos was only a decent second best to Fernand Léger, with whom Milhaud and Claudel had previously collaborated, the film sequences and their interactions with the stage faithfully observed Claudel's detailed specifications.

Greenaway in the programme-book and elsewhere concedes that Claudel's scenic specifications have some historical interest. But in his view Claudel was “primarily inspired by the Hollywood cinema of the 1930s, which was in its essence anecdotal, narrative, and illusionistic.” Given that Claudel wrote the text in 1927 and Milhaud composed the opera in the following year, Greenaway's apparent slip of the pen may well have been due to a nudge from one of his innumerable international admirers, for whom the 1930s are surely marked by the irresistible rise of Cecil B. De Mille (not to mention Arturo Ui and his real-life counterparts, whose infamies are duly cited by Greenaway). In truth, Claudel's film-conceptions of 1927 are as remote from the Hollywood to which Greenaway alludes as they were from the already long-forgotten sagas of D. W. Griffith or indeed (more relevantly) from the multi-screen epics of Claudel's compatriot, Abel Gance.

From time to time, Greenaway's ever-active screens are dominated by a swiftly moving pen held by an unseen computer hand. As the pen speeds across the projection surface closest to the conductor, it transcribes (in the fine repro-antique calligraphy of Brody Neunschweider) the Staatsoper's German versions of the historical and apocryphal documents which Greenaway and Boddeke are presenting to their putative jury, the audience. At the end of his contribution to the programme-book, Greenaway provides a postmodern-cum-Brechtian summary of the five main aspects of his production: The textual, the political, the aesthetic, the self-referential and the chromatic. The first of these categories is defined in a single provocative sentence: “Every significance arises from the multiplicity of the cited texts” (Jegliche Bedeutung kommt aus der Vielzahl der zitierten Texte).

Claudel himself is sparing with cited texts: a single line from Columbus's plea for pardon in heaven and on earth, and three or four quotations from the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation. In the world of believers and unbelievers alike, the first of Claudel's scriptural texts is still a lesson for the world since Derrida: “In the beginning was the Word.” And for the creator of Prospero's Books and The Pillow Book, the original draughtsman's contract continues to apply. The Word becomes the alpha and omega of his Christophe Colomb. It is writ so large and in so many palimpsest-like layers that Claudel himself becomes illegible. His own “little book” or libretto is resoundingly unavailable and out of print. Instead, audiences at the Staatsoper are provided gratis with a synopsis by Greenaway and Boddeke that ably summarizes their own production and omits everything in Claudel that is at odds with it. But the voyages Milhaud and Claudel were concerned with—in their significantly different but complementary ways—were of much greater account than any single production of Christophe Colomb, even including one so exorbitantly ambitious as Greenaway's. Their destinations, as opposed to his, are complex.

In the two volumes of the revised vocal score which was posthumously produced in 1977, the opera begins with a fugal exposition of the classical and geographical background to the discovery of America—an event precipitated, the chorus suggests, by the need or the lust for gold. The discovery itself is announced in the subsequent narration, which also refers to Columbus's despair (“Et maintenant, Terre et Ciel, pleurez sur moi”) and to the answer latent in his given name: Christ-bearer. But the armed resistance of the indigenous population has already provoked hideous reprisals. Meanwhile, Three Wise Men in the Spanish court are already intriguing against the Christ-bearer, and reminding the King that no return on his investment is yet in sight.

The non-anecdotal and anti-chronological narrative of the opera is confirmed by its second scene. Chained to the mast as a hurricane rages, the destitute Columbus is returning to Spain from his fourth voyage. The Cook—a morality-play figure—begins to test him. As the vessel enters the eye of the storm, the scene changes to “The Interior of Columbus's Conscience”; accused by the Cook of genocide and of restoring the curse of slavery to a world that had broken free of it, Columbus—attended by the figures of his mother and his cruelly abandoned wife, shadowed by other Columbuses, and watched from the huge film-screen by yet another Columbus—attempts to defend himself. But his excuses are cynical and crassly opportunistic; and the Cook's criticism is remorseless. Finally the Cook shows him an upended map of his newly discovered world, and tells him that the name given to it is not his but Amerigo Vespucci's.

Columbus's prayer de profundis ends the Cook's interrogation, and introduces the next stage in his spiritual education; destitute, despised and apparently friendless on his return to Spain, he withdraws to a remote place, but is traced by a messenger dispatched by Queen Isabella as she lay dying (a fact withheld from him). The Messenger tells Columbus that she not only remembers him, but wears next to her wedding ring the “Columbus” Ring. She wishes him to know, or rather to learn, that the New World he has discovered is as nothing compared to the Kingdom of God (of which, in Claudel's sense, he has as yet no inkling).

There follows a solemn cortège, in which the chorus refers not to the Queen but to divine forgiveness and Israel's deliverance from its sins. Via an inn scene in which Columbus I begs for lodgings and bitterly rebukes his double, Columbus II, the funeral procession leads thematically to the landscape “Au paradis de l'Idée.” In a pre-celestial Majorca, crystalline, silvery and white, Isabella waits at the gates of heaven, and receives from her former Muslim enemy a cage containing her dove, “ma colombe.” On its claw she sees the Ring she had placed there in her childhood. How can she take it to heaven without her servant Christophe Colomb? The Majorcan landscape on the film-screen parts in the middle and disappears. Through a series of veils is discerned the deep blue of evening, which darkens as Isabella begins her journey “vers le Monde Nouveau” and sees the night sky in its full glory, each constellation a flock of doves.

So ends Act One. The second act views and replays the eight scenes of Act One from the standpoint of eternity, increasing their number to eighteen but cannily doubling the rate of eventuation in order to balance the duration of the first act. The starting point is not the raging hurricane but the (filmed) image of a vast and tenebrous globe—“Et la terre était informe et nu”—on which descends the Holy Ghost in the radiant form of a dove. Representing “Posterity,” the chorus calls for Columbus and orders him to review his earthly life.

The first dramatic scene transforms the scene of the Three Wise Men of Act One, and does so in the popular manner of Kabuki theatre (for which stage-musicians provide a ghostly Latin American accompaniment). Four grotesques represent Columbus to himself in the masks of Envy, Ignorance, Vanity and (“worst of all”) Avarice. Arraigned for these and many other vices by a Prosecutor as remorseless as the Cook in Act One, Columbus is defended on the strictly Claudelian grounds that all his faults stem from his failure to comprehend the full nature of his own discovery, and to descry beyond its horizons the true Kingdom of God.

The trial is interrupted by another flock of doves, which drives off the grotesque Kabuki figures and leads to a vision of Isabella as child, receiving the gift of a caged dove from another child, the Sultan. To the claw of the dove she attaches her ring—the Ring which the dove will carry eastwards across the Mediterranean to the humble weaver's house in Genoa. There, the young Columbus has been reading of Marco Polo. Columbus II insists that he desert his family in order to fulfil his vocation as Christopher, the Christ-bearer. Columbus's sister discovers the Ring on the dove's claw, and gives it to her brother.

In the Azores, “au bout de la Terre” (the known world, that is), Columbus hears from a dying sailor the tale of a New World far to the West, and is inspired to seek support for a voyage of exploration. In Lisbon, he is mocked and rejected by the crowd-chorus at the instigation of Three Guitarists representing his creditors (again in Kabuki style, with Latin American colouring). Proceeding cap in hand to the Spanish court, he is yet again mocked and humiliated. But a bribe paid with his last remaining silver secures him an audience with the Queen. Their actual meeting is not shown, but is recalled by Isabella as she prays in Santiago de Compostella during the aftermath of the expulsion of the Moors and the unification of Spain. On the finger of the “poor beggar” Columbus, she had seen the Ring.

With modest funds, three puny caravels, and a bunch of ruffians snatched from gaols or recruited from the Cadiz docklands by loud music and alluring posters, Columbus prepares to set sail. On the eastern shores of Mexico, the four Aztec Gods and their attendant devils stand in front of their already ruined temples, prophesying what is to come (with variable degrees of foresight) and doing their utmost to frustrate the endeavours of Columbus and his crews. Conceived by Claudel as a demonic farce in which all the Kabuki elements are drawn together, but composed by Milhaud in quite another sense, the Aztec scene is the central panel in a triptych beginning with the embarkation scene and ending, in accordance with the Aztec incantations and prophecies, with the mutiny, the bargain and the sight of a dove bearing an olive branch.

“Un oiseau! Une colombe! Terre à l'avant!”: the three exclamations are answered by three percussion instruments as the Narrator closes the book of Columbus with his rhythmically declaimed shout, “L'Amérique.” There are no more spoken texts or solo voices, only the at first wordless litanies of the chorus. But the pages of Claudel's book and Milhaud's score are still open; and they stir in the same solemnly oceanic rhythm that opened Act Two.

Claudel's last words purport to be a mere stage direction with filmic implications. Like so many of its predecessors, but more obviously than most of them, it has the character of a prose poem. Its title, “Le rédempteur,” is that of the brief closing scene, and the form is tripartite. The first strophe evokes, in the manner of the Douanier Rousseau, a tropical forest with its parrots, pelicans and monkeys. Around a palm tree is coiled a giant serpent; and beyond this Eden lies the empty blue sea. In the central strophe, earth, forest and sea start a cosmic murmur as three sailing vessels are seen on the far horizon. In the third and last strophe, the three caravels are closer to the shore; and, as the flag of Castile is hoisted and the chant of the Te Deum is heard, the cries of the sailors become audible, and the smoke and flames of their first cannon salvo are seen.

With a final A major chord spread across the entire range of the orchestra, as if to replicate on a larger scale the abrupt. A major triad that ends the Act One finale, the opera ends on the second syllable of the word “Sanctus!” But that resounding concord is totally at odds with the stage picture, and in no semantically convincing sense is it a resolution of the “anguish and terror” which, according to Claudel's introductory poem and Milhaud's entire setting of the scene, is present and increasingly manifest in the protesting murmurs of earth, sea and forest.

Forest murmurs; the Ring; the Dove; Gold piled upon Gold; and narrative structures that repeatedly enfold and turn back the perceptual clock. Milhaud was prepared to acknowledge the greatness of Wagner (which Claudel had acknowledged long before him), but declared that he would willingly exchange the whole of The Ring for one page of Berlioz. Incognito, and confined to the wheelchair in which he spent so much of his latter years, he travelled to London specifically to see and hear Kubelik's historic Trojans at Covent Garden.

There is no Berlioz in Christophe Colomb, apart from some lessons in orchestration which help make Milhaud's own orchestral textures one of the genuine thrills of the Staatsoper production; passages that can seem muddy or even meaningless in piano score sprang to life, even when the staging was most heavily weighted against them. What was not always clear—though in Kleiber's day it must have been, to judge from Milhaud's own account—was the characteristic melos and its shifting relationship to the consistently polyvalent harmony. Except for Reiner Goldberg, who was outstanding as the Cook and principal prosecutor, even the strongest of the soloists—including Columbus I and II (David Pittman-Jennings and Peter-Jürgen Schmidt)—had some difficulties with Milhaud's vocal writing and its harmonic implications.

Though relatively small, the soprano role of Queen Isabella is exceptionally demanding. Carola Hohn acquitted herself well, considering how often Greenaway required her to play a Lady Macbeth wiping from her hands the blood of the Inquisition. But the dispassionate lyricism of the Queen's purely symbolic role is hard to attain in a production that reinterprets her role in terms of historical facts, and accuses Claudel of trying to “whitewash” them.

“The Paradise of the Idea,” as distinct from some idea of paradise banal enough to be cheaply or expensively parodied, is not perhaps within Greenaway's ken; nor is the childlike simplicity of Milhaud's post-Mussorgskian conception of it. Elsewhere, Claudel and Milhaud are systematically “corrected” by a promiscuous montage of admirable or deplorable material, whose relevance to Columbus's discovery of America is sometimes tenuous. Archive footage from Mexican-Indian and other ethnic reservations is associated with newsreel clips of plundered rain forests and Third World impoverishment. Martin Luther King on the rostrum and Nelson Mandela on the march are counterpointed by Kissinger at the microphone, the UN Security Council in plenary session, and the empty chairs of the IMF.

At the centre of this sustained critique of the opera's supposed naïvety is a familiar account of the unspeakable, under the sign of Hieronymus Bosch. Yet again the German officer stands with his back to the camera watching the last Jewish stragglers fighting for places in the carriages that will carry them to the gas chambers; yet again, the emaciated survivors at Buchenwald stare uncomprehendingly at the lenses of their Allied liberators in April 1945; and finally, Bosnia and Kosovo, too, are called in evidence.

The last two performances of Christophe Colomb during the 1998–99 season happened to straddle the sixtieth anniversary of the November pogroms in Germany and Austria. From Bialystok and Vilnius to San Francisco and Valparaiso, the ramifications of such anniversaries are still immense. Clearly, the management of Berlin's Staatsoper is sensitive to them. Less clear is their perception of all that was at stake in mounting, at some considerable cost to the public purse, an opera by a rather poorly esteemed composer who happens to have been of Jewish origin, faith and conviction.

“La message divine de la Justice et de la Paix” is the informing sense of the final chorus of David, the opera Milhaud wrote with Armand Lunel in 1953 for the celebrations commemorating the 3,000th anniversary of the foundation of Jerusalem. That faith in divine justice was perhaps a simple one, but in no sense was it complacent. The one-act opera Esther de Carpentras, which Milhaud wrote with Lunel in 1925, is on one level a comedy in the Molière tradition. But it is played against a fully comprehended background of tragedy—the very background which Greenaway's insistent reminders of Isabella's role in the Inquisition seek but fail to illumine. Esther has a relatively happy end, but an uneasy and challenging one: common sense, simple humanity and pure expediency may be a surer basis for lasting peace between Jewish and Christian communities than high-minded idealism. But there are no easy remedies.

For Claudel, that understanding was implicit in a collaboration that lasted from 1912 until his death in 1955 (though Milhaud would continue to set his poetry and his Psalm translations for many years to come). From that angle, Christophe Colomb is the axis on which the globe of their collaboration revolves. From other angles, it is itself a revolving globe. But the radiance of its two religious faiths comes from the same monotheistic quarter, and always leaves one hemisphere in darkness.

The greater darkness is Milhaud's. His composition of Claudel's Twilight of the Aztec Gods is a pitch-black choral and orchestral fugue, in which the head-motif of the fugue subject sounds like a stylization of some Sephardic cantillation trope. So far from throwing Claudel's Kabuki-like farce into relief, it makes as if to destroy it. To what end? From a “viewpoint of today” that bears some relation to the composer's own, the Aztec scene describes a route from Golgotha to the Shoah, much as Moses, which Milhaud subtitled “Opus Americanum no. 2,” in 1940 prefigures the Inferno of Le Château de feu, a cantata worthy to stand beside Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, but composed in memory of relatives who did not survive their deportation from Vichy France.

That which Milhaud had the right to say at all times was never attempted or denied by Claudel, who might well have argued that he himself had no such right. In his Columbus poem-play, it was sufficient for him to modulate from high mysticism to low farce in order to suggest that the “bearers” of Christianity were justified in believing their religion to be in principle superior to that of the Aztecs, and in practice certain to supplant it. But it was left to Milhaud in his operatic setting of the Aztec scene to remind his listeners that cruel and vengeful polytheisms were not the only religions Christianity had claimed to supplant. Although the posthumous edition of the revised score indicates that the Aztec scene may be omitted, the note is unsigned, and the composer's very much alive widow clearly recalls his adamant opposition to the idea. Nevertheless, the Staatsoper have suppressed the scene. Understandably perhaps; but also tacitly.

It is no mere coincidence that, three months ago, the Dessau-Brecht opera Die Verurteilung des Lukullus (The Condemnation of Lucullus) was once again staged by the Staatsoper—in the production by the composer's widow, Ruth Berghaus. In its original form as Das Verhör des Lukullus (The Trial of Lucullus), the opera was to have had its world premiere at the Staatsoper in March 1951, but was withdrawn, revised and retitled after protests from Communist apparachiks. In its new form, it passed the censors and was presented by the Staatsoper in October of the same year. As early as 1959, John Willett, in his pioneering study, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, was citing Claudel's Christophe Colomb as a key influence on Brecht's Lehrstücke. That connection can hardly have been lost on the present management of the Staatsoper. It has not been overlooked by Greenaway and Boddeke.

The “trial” of Christopher Columbus was, of course, prepared by Claudel and notated in another tongue by Milhaud. But theirs were preliminary hearings in a terrestrial court. By his very nature and origin, Milhaud was bound to be the one who first understood that, like the chronometrics of their opera, the voyages of Columbus are circular. Theoretically, the two acts in their revised form could be followed by a reprise of Act One, and so on ad infinitum. In practice, the advent of “Le Rédempteur” is announced only by the smoke and flames of the Spanish cannon. Columbus himself is still unredeemed.

For Greenaway and Boddeke, he is irredeemable. The primary purpose of their “trial” of him is not to promote the cause of justice, but to secure a conviction. True, the humane concerns expressed in Columbus's famous letter to the Spanish king are briefly acknowledged, as indeed are Isabella's testamentary wishes with regard to the treatment of the “Indians.” But these are sops for the foreign press. In the brilliance of the setting, as in the positioning of the cameras and the sheer mass of the negative evidence, the Staatsoper's production of Christophe Colomb has all the marks of a show trial. The defendants are not only the two Columbuses and their shadows, but Claudel and Milhaud; and predictably enough, the verdict pronounced by Greenaway and Boddeke from “the viewpoint of today” is reminiscent of the one that was daubed on the walls of the Sorbonne by the French students of exactly thirty years ago: “Plus jamais Claudel!!”

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Staatsoper had decided to replace Christophe Colomb by Messiaen's St François d'Assise. What latitude would have remained for the insights of Greenaway and Boddeke? In today's crisis of high culture, there is one law for recently elected immortals, another for the gifted living artist with influential friends and powerful publishers, and a third for the plain and undefended dead. Messiaen, whose half-acknowledged and incontrovertible debt to Claudel is equalled if not surpassed by his unacknowledged debt to Milhaud, belongs to the first category; Claudel and Milhaud to the last.

To crack open such categories and release the best in all of them is one of the increasingly neglected responsibilities of the media in every form. The Staatsoper is by no means unmindful of that particular responsibility. But in its eagerness to exploit a media-opportunity conveniently provided by the repertory decisions of seventy years ago, and to do so in the worthy cause of attracting new audiences, it has embraced a factitious contemporaneity that tends to undermine its own long-term objectives. Of such dangers there is a salutary reminder in the lobby of the building now occupied by Deutschland Radio (formerly the home of RIAS, Berlin's well-loved “Radio in the American Sector”). A huge oscillator, long decommissioned but still painted in military green, it had originally been sited in the former German Democratic Republic, some kilometres to the north of the Unter den Linden. Until a decade ago, it had served the regime's purposes by jamming unwelcome messages from the West.

Whereas the messages which Picasso's dove was delivering to the posters and curtains of Brecht's Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s had been designed for universal acceptance, those which Claudel entrusted to his own colombes were of quite another order. The only true and lasting irony in Greenaway's reading of them is that the sheer power of his oscillators serves to emphasize the greater power of what Claudel and Milhaud were actually conveying. If, in another seventy years' time, the Greenaway-Boddeke Colomb can still be discovered somewhere out in cyberspace, that will not be too late to describe its arrival at the Staatsoper as historic. From the “viewpoint of today” it is simply, and not so simply, another sign of the times.

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

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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 gives Peter Greenaway's 1989 production its uniquely effective “ambiguous identity.” At times, the ambiguity is so baffling and some of the scenes so brutal that the spectator is tempted to cry off. Nevertheless, the ambiguous nature of the film also gives it its tremendous strength and, for this reason, it can be evaluated in different terms. The premise for this essay, therefore, is that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, despite its studied crudity, presents not one, but various layers of meaning. First, there is a story of love and intrigue which makes up the “legitimate” plot. Beneath this surface narrative lies a world in which masculinity and femininity are shown to be at odds; and lastly, under the cover of these two chronicles lies an allegorical, and profoundly disturbing; representation of contemporary British politics.

Before turning to the more obscure or puzzling issues, a logical point of departure is the story itself. In her review of the film, Jeanne Silverthorne indicates how the use of constant static camera plans produces the effect of a stage play, a fact that accounts for the production resembling a kind of Jacobean drama (24). Peter Greenaway himself described the film as “a violent and erotic love-story set in the kitchen and dining room of a smart restaurant” (French 277). The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover opens with a gruelling scene in which a defenseless man is being beaten up and utterly humiliated by a group of ruffians in some dismal, derelict, inner-city area. By following the leader of the gang into a nearby locale, the camera then introduces the spectator into the space where most of the action will, from then on, be confined. The vociferous and violent Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) is about to have dinner in the restaurant Le Hollandais, which he owns in partnership with the French cook, Mr. Boarst (Richard Bohringer). Henceforth, the bulk of the plot is organized around several consecutive dinner parties, all taking place at the restaurant. Night after night, the table is presided over by Mr. Spica and his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren). The cause-and-effect chain of action is provided by Georgina and Michael's romance, secretly aided and abetted by the cook. Suspense slowly builds up as Georgina's absences from the table become too obvious and regular to be ignored, and culminates when Mr. Spica discovers he is being deceived by his wife. Mr. Boarst's prompt action enables the couple to hide in the cold store and then escape in a truck full of rotting meat. They take refuge in Michael's book store, a haven which Georgina decides to leave momentarily in order to visit Pup at the hospital. What Georgina does not know, however, is that for all the boy's courageous silence under torture, information as to her whereabouts was supplied in the books he carried with him. She therefore returns to find the bookshop wrecked and her lover brutally murdered. The final scenes show Georgina imploring Mr. Boarst for yet another favour and ultimately convincing him to cook her lover. The film ends with yet another special meal, this time in Mr. Spica's honour—the delicacy for the occasion being the very man whom Mr. Spica had sworn to kill—and eat.

As stated before, even though the basic story in the film has the apparently fixed and fundamental structure of a Jacobean revenge tragedy, there is in some sense no original, no real or right text. In other words, by means of these same images, Peter Greenaway can be said to present a world in which the meaning lies outside or beyond the surface narrative. From this perspective therefore, the characters of Mr. Spica and Georgina can be viewed as emblems, or atemporal tokens of the relation between the sexes.

The film opens, in the words of Ann Rosalind Jones, with Man (Albert Spica) loudly claiming his centrality: “I am the unified, self-controlled centre of the universe. The rest of the world, which I define as Other, has meaning only in relation to me, as man/father, possessor of the phallus” (Showalter 362). This mode of thinking has been attacked by Hélène Cixous who contended that Man has segmented reality by coupling concepts and terms in pairs of polar opposites, one of which, she claimed, is always privileged over the other. In La Jeune Née, Cixous asserted that all these opposites find their inspiration in the fundamental dichotomous pair man/woman, in which man is invariably defined as the Self and woman as his Other (Duchen 91–96; Moi 104–5). Cixous's viewpoint seems to adequately reflect the initial position of the main characters in Peter Greenaway's film. The very nature of Man can be said to reverberate sonorously in the name of the protagonist itself since “Mr. Spica” comes very close to “speaker”—the one who utters.1 Mr. Spica is thus portrayed as the Self and Georgina as no more than his Other. Furthermore, from a Marxist-feminist stance, Georgina's position is depicted as one of utter subjugation for it, as reflected in the teaching of Engel's Origin, women's station in capitalism is determined by the intersection between their experience as workers and their mission in the family (199), then Georgina is doubly “non-productive”: She does not work and we soon learn that she is unable to have children. Consequently, she is no more than a commodity and, like the restaurant, simply a part of her husband's property.

However, although Georgina is presented from the outset as a submissive wife and shadowlike character, the spectator soon distinguishes her from Spica's group of friends. She remains “marginal” in the sense that her smartness, gravity and general savoir faire immediately set her apart from her entourage. She sits at table, vaguely correcting her husband's French but generally remote and indifferent to the vulgar talk and ghastly table manners around her. However quiet and aloof from her immediate surroundings, Georgina is nevertheless watchful. She catches the eye of another of the regular customers, Michael (Alan Howard), who sits silently reading at his table. It is through her illicit (in the eyes of the Self or patriarchy) sexual affair that Georgina becomes a character of stature. She is still the Other, but rather than reflecting the oppressiveness of this position, it seems that the film actually embraces the condition of Otherness through its female protagonist. By manipulating the viewers' identification, the film thus places the audience into a deconstructive position. As explained by Rosemarie Tong: “The deconstructist approach takes a critical attitude towards … social injustices as well as the structures upon which they are based, the language in which they are thought and the systems in which they are safeguarded” (219). Such a stance enables the audience to stand back and view critically the norms, values and practices that patriarchy (Mr. Spica) imposes on everyone. It is therefore from a position of Otherness that the audience is made to identify with Georgina, and from the “periphery” that spectators register Georgina's paralysis when her husband charges into the ladies' lavatory; that they undergo the insults and physical abuse from Mr. Spica and suffer Georgina's horror at finding the bloody and lifeless body of her lover.

As Georgina and Michael hide away in the ladies' bathroom they need no words to communicate during their first moments of sexual euphoria or when nearly caught by Mr. Spica. This, in itself, can be viewed as an important detail. According to Jacques Lacan's interpretation of the psychosexual drama, femininity is squelched or silenced in the Symbolic Order because the only words available are masculine words and consequently, women cannot express their subjectivity. Using Freud's and Lacan's framework, Kristeva draws a contrast between the two different modalities: the “Semiotic” and the “Symbolic.” Even though Kristeva's notion of the “feminine” clearly belongs to the semiotic, at no time does she conceive of this disposition as relating exclusively to biological women. In her opinion, femininity is to be found in a man just as it is in a woman. For this reason, Michael and Georgina's mutual attraction can be interpreted as the natural binding together of their semiotic potential. If, as stated by Kristeva, the power or the subversive nature of the semiotic lies in its fragmented, occasional and provisional presences within the Symbolic, then the couple's fleeting encounters represent a daring challenge to the Symbolic Order installed (and emblematized) by Mr. Spica. On the other hand, the Symbolic is founded on a repression of the Semiotic, of the sexually unidentified pre-Oedipal, still at one with the maternal body. This maternal space is supplied in the film by the “privacy” of the ladies's lavatory, a female space par excellence highlighted by the brilliant whiteness and purity of the place as opposed to the sombre and crimson atmosphere of the restaurant. In this female sanctuary, Georgina and Michael homogenize through touch, feeling and sexual communication in silence. It is only when forced into the kitchen larder, the antechamber of the Symbolic—that sexual intercourse and verbal communication take place between them. The change of scene can therefore be understood as an omen or sure sign of coming trouble. Georgina is worried that the utterance of words has broken the magnetism between them, that her lover will “lose interest” or that their special relationship will somehow be affected.

In Kristeva's opinion, the constant interplay of the semiotic and symbolic implies that woman as such can never exist; she is always in the making, a subject-in-process. The very fact that woman cannot actually be, in or under patriarchy, allies her with other groups excluded from the dominant: homosexuals, the aged, people suffering from AIDS, or any other social, racial and ethnic minorities. Clearly, from Mr. Spica's authoritative stance, Georgina (as a woman) and Michael (categorized as a Jew) are marginal—outsiders or “misfits” to be subdued, crushed and tramped on. Mr. Spica's reaction and revenge against the couple exemplifies precisely what patriarchy does in real life: It locks men and women into roles, attributes and duties with reference to preordained, pre-constructed ideals of masculinity and femininity. This type of identification automatically determines the position of the individual within the Symbolic as acceptable/central or objectionable/marginal. Georgina's crime is to have stepped out of her imposed function as obedient and submissive wife (to a tyrant) and Michael's crime is to be different, and by meddling with Mr. Spica's property, to have defied Spica's loudly proclaimed manhood. In their different ways, both peripheral characters have therefore destabilized the up till then unquestioned omnipotence of the centre—Mr. Spica.

Although Georgina and Michael's plight vis-à-vis Mr. Spica does motivate a certain degree of identification with their position as hunted preys, it is also true that the camera-work in the film seems to concentrate more on accentuating the artificiality and theatricality of the narrative than on displaying the characters' subjective point of view. In other words, the numerous static camera scenes and the long, studied slowness of many panning shots, with their heavy insistence on spatial configurations rather than on character temporality, seem bent on recreating the effect of a stage play and, by extension, on bringing about an impression of distance in spectators. Freedom from the compulsion to plunge into full identification with the characters is what permits the spectator not to recoil at the magnitude of Georgina's final revenge and, thus, to view her coercion of Mr. Spica to chew and swallow part of her lover with a certain emotional distance. However, even if looked upon as the enactment of some theatrical set-up, Georgina's calculated vengeance can nevertheless be said to lay bare an abomination or monstrosity—a horror or “abject and unspeakable fascistic terror” which, according to Kristeva, underlies all culture (Oliver 102).

In her opinion, social order is constructed on and around certain agencies of regulation such as religion, morality, politics or language whose authority rests on the repression of horror. However, this horror can never be totally smothered and consequently is invariably lurking behind the command and control of these social institutions (Oliver 102). Kristeva claims that one way of articulating this horror is through what she calls the “language of abjection”—the perverted language, style and content of the work of writers who, captivated by the abject, imagine its logic and project themselves into it in an attempt to bring it “to the surface.” In Powers of Horror, Kristeva introduces the notion of abjection in the following way: “There looms within abjection one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” (3).2 The abject is something repulsive that both attracts and repels: “It holds you there in spite of your disgust. It fascinates. Rotten flesh can be abject, defilement or pollution that requires exclusion or even taboo. Crime can be abject, transgression of the law that requires exclusion or even death” (Oliver 55–6). In this work, Kristeva presents the anti-Semitic writings of Cèline as an example of abject literature and praises the author for the cathartic nature of the negative and murderous impulses he expresses, “for,” as she says, “giving us a warning while we thirst for sleep and jouissance” (180). If, as suggested by Kristeva, abject language or literature can be therapeutic for the reader then it could be argued that The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (and more particularly the last scenes in the film) is an “abject narrative” that, in the same manner, seeks to expunge these negative drives by exposing and confronting us with the traces of our own, constantly denied, psychic violence.

With this in mind, Georgina's protagonism in the final scenes cannot simply be taken at face value. More than a personal revenge for the death of her lover, Georgina's act seems to emblematize the revolutionary powers of horror—a horror, as stated before, that is unremittingly repressed both in individuals and in society but that invariably skirts complete ostracism.

On the other hand, and leaving Kristeva's theory aside, Georgina's revenge also intimates how, by a kind of “feminine circularity,” despotic rule is finally compelled to “bite its own tail”: if Michael was made to eat his books, Albert is now forced to eat his own words. In having to ingest the cooked flesh of the man he swore to kill and eat, the Self, “Mr. Speaker,” is therefore metaphorically silenced. It is in the sacramental atmosphere of this “last supper,” Which clearly intimates a ritualistic mass and communion that Georgina's shouted “cannibal” aligns with the silent “revolution” on the bloody pages she pulled out of Michael's mouth. Hence, as the tables are finally turned against the oppressor this cryptic enactment of the Christian rite of transubstantiation also serves to warn viewers that Revolution, in this case the violent change or replacement of one form of rule for another, will inevitably come from those sectors in society that have been curbed, crushed and put down by the dominant culture.

In this sense, the ending of the film very much recalls Danah Zohar's and Ian Marshall's theory as put forward in The Quantum Society. The authors explain how difference is today a common feature amongst people living together, and a particularly notable one in Great Britain where a new kind of “multiculturalism” is manifest. The fact of viewing the “Other” as a menace also characterizes the links between Britain and the European Community and explains the heated debates concerning the supposed threat to British values and traditions caused by excessive emphasis on different, or foreign, customs and conventions. The point is that on the personal, social or international scale, whenever reaction to “the Other” entails threat, conflict or intolerance, the result is invariably one of violence and confrontation (Zohar and Marshall 218–24).

Furthermore, the emphasis in the film on violence, decadence and depravity seems to have as one of its main purposes the presentation of the restaurant as an underworld of shadows harbouring refugees in flight from respectable society. It is in this modern wasteland—where the young, the old, the poor, woman and any contemptible “Other” form an army of aliens—that the well-worn phrase “(Not) One of Us” acquires chilling relevance (Young).3 The exclusivity denoted in the phrase helps identify Mr. Spica and comrades as reactionary spectres of Mrs Thatcher and the hard-edged cronies she placed with her in office inside the Conservative Party. Peter Greenaway himself stated that the film was a bitter and angry reaction against the Thatcher government and its morally repressive leanings (Van Wert 48). It therefore seems plausible to consider the theme of them and us as referring to a concrete political situation in addition to the already mentioned divorce between acceptable/central and objectionable/marginal elements in society.

However, it is by activating factual resonances in history that Mr. Spica becomes emblematic of a political stance. Here, the prominence given in the film to Frans Hals's painting “Banquet of the Officers of the Civic Guard of St. George at Haarlem” (1616) is fully justified.4 This group portrait, rated as Hals's best (Encyclopaedia Britannica 865; Morales 347), can be said to comprise both the objective and subjective targets of the film. Firstly, the banquet scene depicted in Hals's painting not only echoes the arrangement of the characters around the restaurant table but also the film plot itself, structured as stated before, around various consecutive dinner parties. Secondly, Hals's painting represents members of a committee or governing board who, like other prominent men in Dutch political affairs, “commemorated” their persons and deeds by commissioning a group portrait to be hung on the walls of the board rooms and meeting places of their companies. In the same manner, the film can be said to “immortalize” Mr. Spica and his associates in their usual meeting place—the restaurant. The correlation between the painting on the wall and the film is further underlined by the evident modern “reworking” of the black clothes and red bands worn by the company of men. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Dutch backcloth provided by Hals's painting indirectly links Holland's prominent early seventeenth-century anti-statism and reliance on individual enterprise (clearly reflected in the proliferation of civic groups as opposed to the absolutist monarchies of France, England and Spain)5 to Margaret Thatcher's aggressive, neo-liberal advocacy of concepts such as self-interest, competitive individualism and anti-statism. It is only through an acquaintance with the other term of this comparison that the spectator can fully appreciate to what extent Mr. Spica's dinner parties represent, in fact, a grotesque caricature of the seventeenth-century “ideal,” embodied in the honourable and meritorious group of bourgeois Dutchmen in which no member is more conspicuous than any other. Albert Spica, a pretentious brute and aspiring gourmet, belches and spits out food, causes havoc among the restaurant customers and staff and obscenely talks about rear ends, excrement and dirt.6 For him, sex is dirty, books are meaningless and the only realities are power and money. If the restaurant is taken as a shrine of avid consumerism then, in political terms, Albert could either embody Mrs. Thatcher herself, especially considering that both the prime minister's friends and enemies considered her as just like a man (Campbell 233),7 or he could be a stand-in for all cruel employers or the upper classes who live off the work of others, or he could simply represent the dark side of the underclass. What is clear is that this Cockney brute is attuned to the world of avarice and crass materialism that many see as the Thatcher legacy.

A deliberate mockery of human “progress” can be detected if the different rooms in this insular, hyper-stylized world are visualized as different stages in history (an eighteenth-century kitchen, fin-de-siècle dining-room and late twentieth-century bathroom, all giving on to a modern carpark). Greenaway even goes as far as to colour-code these spaces as a means, it seems, of altering the ambience from scene to scene. However, the artifice that most potently evokes the full dimensions of the economic recession affecting Britain under Thatcher is probably the uncanny, eerie atmosphere of the film. It is against such a background of inner-city degeneration, violence and crime that the threat of fascism (epitomized by Mr. Spica and his cronies) becomes a real peril. Fascism and economic recession together are what render transparent many otherwise opaque or hidden connections, which make up some of the key themes on the agenda of the radical right. Thus, through the ostensibly fabled character of Mr. Spica, many of the resonant themes of organic Toryism—the need for social discipline and authority in the face of a conspiracy by the enemies of the state, the onset of social anarchy, the enemy “within”—are indirectly articulated before the spectator. The fact that the decadent, upper-class customers are utterly indifferent to Mr. Spica's tumult and disruption in the restaurant also suggests the extent to which a sector of society passively colluded with Thatcher's famously insensitive politics. It is with this in mind that the film's depiction of the pointedly silent “lover” (Michael does not utter a word until half-way through the film) becomes politically suggestive. This otherwise enigmatic character could be said to represent the academic element in British society, individuals who arm themselves with knowledge and know all too well the lessons history has to offer.8 For this reason, Michael's interest in the French Revolution is doubly relevant in the story. On the one hand, and from the character's point of view, the allusion to this bloody historical event invokes Edmund Burke's sombre Reflections on the French Revolution in which the author warned his readers that such an inadmissible rebellion would founder in a welter of anarchy and violence (Macpherson 63–8). On the other hand, and at a more impressionistic level, the theme of the Revolution also brings to mind the dominating viewpoint at the time, crystalized by the Social Contract, in which Jean-Jacques Rousseau developed the idea that king and rulers govern states owing to a contract with their subjects. If the rulers do not fulfill the contract, it was the right and the duty of the people to oppose or depose them. “So long as a People is constrained to obey and does, in fact, obey—it does well, so soon as it can shake off its yoke, and succeeds in doing so, it does better” (Rousseau 240). Thus, a kind of commemoration of the French Revolution (the film was issued in 1989 when the 200th anniversary of the event was celebrated) is used to code the political content of the film: lip-service is paid to a range of values easily identifiable with those proclaimed so often by Thatcher—her loudly claimed concern with individual liberty and active participation of the people in the destiny of the country while, in practice, both the Revolution and Thatcherism epitomize the consolidation of the centralized modern state (even a kind of dictatorship9) as the sole repository of national interest. Hence, if Mr. Spica is portrayed as a bully, the pattern of Mrs. Thatcher's behaviour and her priorities in policies leave no doubt as to why the main character in the film is labelled “Thief”: during the eighties, wage councils offering some protection to the poor disappeared, maternity rights were curtailed, child care became almost non-existent, tax incentives were only directed at those at the top of the income tree while the dole slowly dwindled. Even legislation governing equality had to be forced on Britain by the European Court (Roberts 15). Could this last point be shrewdly insinuated in the film by means of Mr. Boarst? Clearly, the cook is the only individual who refuses to buckle under to Spica's every whim, a fact that calls to mind Giscard D'Estaing's and Mitterand's condescending attitude toward Mrs. Thatcher and their coolness when faced with her shockingly undiplomatic tantrums during European summits (D'Estaing 4; Thompson 60). Mr. Boarst not only demands sovereignty in the kitchen, a space that could evoke both the foreignness of Europe and the enforced partnership of Britain with the European Common Market, but he also succors the wife and her lover who, as stated before, can be viewed as emblematizing downtrodden elements in British society. It is therefore by breaking down traditions, lifestyles and historical events of three different countries and then putting them back together to make something entirely new that Greenaway implants some discernible political innuendoes into the story. As noted by William F. Van Wert, what is English in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is both the Jacobean revenge tragedy and Margaret Thatcher's England; what is Dutch in the film is both the preponderance of portrait painters as well as the name of the restaurant and what is French in the film is both the refinement of cuisine and the French Revolution (48).

All in all, it is plain that in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover there is no one narrative, no one stable point of view, no easy reading of the film. Even though the basic plot—part gangster movie, part revenge tragedy—is fairly straightforward, more substance can be given to the otherwise painfully vulnerable Georgina and self-effacing Michael if the characters are seen as representative of the abject coming into collision with the stubborn tyranny of the Symbolic. On the other hand, Greenaways's bold use of art, art history and historical facts adds another, this time political, dimension to the film. From this perspective, the clear references to seventeenth-century bourgeois Holland can be understood as questioning the Thatcherite mix of economic liberalism and moral authoritarianism while the covert and ironic homage paid to the French Revolution actually pushes the logic of Thatcher's ideology to its limits in subtly underlining how the promised opening of a new era for Britain resulted in the alienation of everyone except the few pertaining to the “One of Us” clan. It is this constant dallying with the past that renders The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover a profoundly allegorical work, a work that challenges traditional images and ideas in an attempt, it seems, to “shock” those members of the audience lulled into conformity with their lot under Thatcherite politics. Consequently, the story in the film can be said to constitute either an external attack on modern procedures and moral values or simultaneously, a spontaneous, intentional and internally generated reaction to Thatcherism and all it stood for.


  1. In Artforum, Jeanne Silverthorne brings up an interesting point in her column on The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (28, 1989–90, 22–24). She sees in the scrambled letters of the restaurant, initially (dis)arranged to read “Aspic and Boarst,” a play on “speak-a” (Spica) becoming a-speak (aspic) with all the connotations this reference to meat jelly brings to mind. Although admittedly, this subtle connection can be seen as discreetly “announcing” the final scene in the film, it seems that, more than enigmatic symbols, what impresses itself clearly on spectators at this early stage in the story is the deliberate and sonorous analogy between the name of the protagonist and the character—who not only speaks—but who ROARS throughout the film.

  2. This feeling of nausea or disgust is traceable to the infant's pre-Oedipal experiences with its own body and that of its mother (excrement, blood, mucous). Abjection makes its appearance in the struggle to separate from the maternal body. The child tries to separate but feels that separation is impossible. The mother is made abject in order to facilitate the separation from her. At this point the mother is not-yet-object and the child is not-yet-subject (Kelly Oliver, 1993: 56).

  3. “One of Us” was a designation applied by Margaret Thatcher herself to the politicians and other advisers on whom she felt she could rely. It was during her three terms as prime minister that the opposite: “Not One of Us” became common currency—as did the expression “wets”—as a means of referring to those members of the party who had serious reservations about some of the policies Margaret Thatcher and her “inner” cabinet were pursuing. Ironically, the phrase “Not One of Us” was clearly in the air, as applied to her own person, when the prime minister was “deposed” by her own party in November 1990.

  4. In his review of the film, William F. Van Wert notices many other allusions to well-known tableaux. He mentions: Masaccio's “The Expulsion of Adam and Eve” (the naked lovers in the maggot-infested food van); Andrea Del Castagno's “The Last Supper” 1436 (the long supper table with Fitch and company); Antonello Da Messina's “St Jerome in His Study” 1460 (the book depository scene); Andrea Mantegna's “Dead Christ” (1500) and Rembrandt's “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman” (the view of the dead Michael from the feet up); Van Eyck's “Adam and Eve” (one tableau of the lovers); Rembrandt's “The Syndics of the Draper's Guild” (for one of Spica's suppers, where three of his men are standing behind the table); Vermeer's “The Cook” (1617) (for one of the kitchen tableaux) (Film Quarterly, 1990–91: 47).

  5. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the British State was based on the power of the monarch controlled by a Parliament. Unlike Britain, Holland developed during the same period a liberal-federal system, free of royal rule, as a means of preserving regional autonomies. The United Provinces, a result of the 1609 Armistice, was a small, but very densely populated, territory with no cultural or political homogeneity. The strength of this small confederation of provinces resided in its political self-determination and in the economic activity of its powerful town merchants and traders. These middle-class townsmen formed a variety of cooperatives and it was their political and economic prosperity that demonstrated that (contrary to the officially held theories in nations such as France, Spain, Britain) economic expansion did not necessarily depend on strong central government. It was only at the end of the seventeenth century that Holland's lack of professional armed forces at the service of a powerful centralized government proved the country's undoing, especially when the country was harassed by increased pressure from the exterior while undergoing an economic deadlock (Van Dülmen, 1982: 176–78; Clark, 1966: 93, 129–30).

  6. As suggested by Sean French in his review of the film, it seems that Greenaway's aim in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover was to portray the whole of life in terms of consumption and excretion (277). If Mr. Spica is viewed as a big overgrown child whose development has been somehow arrested at the oral and anal stages, then the characterization of this very carnal bully quite neatly fits Freud's description of pathological cases deriving from fixation on “pregenital” organizations of infantile libidinal life (1977: 109–112; 116–118; 207–215; 295–300). The first of these stages is, according to Freud, the oral or cannibalistic one when sexual activity is not yet disconnected from the ingestion of food. This “phase” is reflected in the very setting of the film—the restaurant—and in the fact that food and eating are constant themes in the story. The subject is bluntly viewed in its totality (ingestion, digestion and defecation) for, while artful food elaboration and pseudo-gourmet consumption take place in the restaurant, their opposites are also present in the form of rotting raw meat in vans and in the covert allusions to excretion through the recurring lavatory scenes. A second pregenital, auto-erotic phase in infantile development is the sadistic-anal organization. All the instinct components of this phase are present in the big, narcissistic Mr. Spica: the character exhibits a total lack of shame, an evident inclination towards or curiosity about lavatories (a perversion of the spontaneous infantile inquisitiveness as regards the processes of micturition and defecation), and a very marked (and amply illustrated in the film) active instinct for cruelty. It is the preponderance of these infantile manifestations that is most symptomatic of perversion and disturbance in the adult character of Mr. Spica. Consequently, the very carnal and often physically brutal acts committed by Mr. Spica reveal to what extent he is a regressive character—all his perversions deriving from a fixation at the anal stage. The first scenes already show Mr. Spica sadistically smearing excrement all over a man. This anal fixation is also played out when Mr. Spica follows Georgina into the ladies's room, attacks a gentleman at the urinal or tells Michael to go and “stand in the corner like a naughty little boy.” Even Georgina acknowledges to her dead lover that her husband was “not really interested in sex,” being much more prone to sodomistic games.

  7. Beatrix Campbell, referring to Margaret Thatcher, says that “uniquely among politicians, in the public mind she (Margaret Thatcher) belongs to one sex but could be either” (1987: 233). This veiled criticism was later converted into a full-blown condemnation by Yvonne Roberts when she declared: “She (Margaret Thatcher) created a monstrous new mythology about the female gender: that only the ruthless, the insensitive and the despotic can lead and survive” (Observer, Sunday, 25th November, 1990, 15).

  8. The compound of silence and covert defiance on the part of Michael is reminiscent of a similar posture adopted by Oxford University dons throughout the eighties to rebuff Mrs. Thatcher and all she stood for. It concerned the yearly custom at Oxford University of conferring honorary degrees to eminent personalities. As prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was logically on the list and, as an Oxford graduate, could have been thought automatically eligible. However, year after year, and as a kind of silent revolution, the dons voted to withhold the honour from the prime minister. Mrs. Thatcher's way of talking about the amply tenured university staff and the many cuts she imposed on universities proved in their eyes that she had no deep sympathy with universities. Likewise, the educational policy she was activating (universities had to show a profit and show evidence of their cost-effectiveness) was interpreted as an open challenge to many of the traditions which academics thought inviolable. For this reason, as Hugo Young remarked: “… it would be inappropriate for Oxford to accord such a wrecker its highest token of approval. By withholding it, Oxford was acting for the entire academic world” (1991: 403).

  9. In the spring of 1789, events in France seemed to offer a prospect of national regeneration that caught the imagination of the whole of Europe. However, after the execution of the King, the newborn Republic soon faced a widespread counter-revolutionary movement, economic troubles and sans-culotte discontent. The emergency measures of the Republican leaders amounted in effect to a dictatorial regime and inaugurated a period which Jean-Paul Marat termed “the despotism of liberty” (Wright, 1990:66)—that is, the attempt to save the Revolution by ruthless force and Terror.

    A certain historic symmetry may be appreciated by comparing these events to Margaret Thatcher's career. In 1979, the country was startled out of its cosy lethargy by the appearance of a woman in high politics. The figure of Margaret Thatcher made even politics seem exciting, and her earnest pledge to launch the recovery of Britain was received with glee by ample sectors in society. However, if Mrs. Thatcher came to power as “the head of a peasants' revolt against the Establishment of her party” (Raphael, 1990: 13), the pattern of leadership she set from the start soon developed into a kind of dictatorship as Number Ten slowly but surely became a kind of fortress—the sole sanctuary of the true creed. Likewise, outside the governmental machine, the supposed opening of a new era for the British economy resulted in inflation, unemployment, new taxes and Britain remaining a second rate economy.

Works Cited

Campbell, Beatrix. The Iron Ladies. London: Virago P, 1987.

Clark, Sir George. Early Modern Europe. London: Oxford University P, 1966.

D'Estaing, Giscard. “The Names She Has Been Called.” The Independent. 23 Nov. 1990: 4.

Duchen, Claire. Feminism in France. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Ready References and Index. IV (1974) London: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.: 865.

Engels, Friedrich. (1884) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. London: Penguin Books, 1986.

French, Sean. “Spit Roast: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.Sight and Sound 58: 277–78.

Freud, Sigmund. On Sexuality: Vol. 7. London: Penguin Books, 1977.

Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. Oxford: Phaidon P, 1988.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror, an Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Loche, Hume, Rousseau. Social Contract,The World's Classics 511. London: Oxford UP, 1970.

MacAdam, Barbara. “Fantasy in Crimson,” Art News. Mar. 1990: 31.

Macpherson, C. B. Burke. Oxford: Oxford University P, 1990.

Mazabrard, Colette. “La Culture et le Bouillon.” Cahiers du cinema. (1989) no. 425.

Moi, Tori. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1988.

Morales, Y. Marin. José Luis. Historia universal del arte: barroco y rococó. VII (1986) Barcelona: Ediciones Planeta.

Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1993.

Raphael, Adams. “Maggie's Enemies Within,” Observer. 25 Nov. 1990: 13.

Roberts, Yvonne. “Why Mrs. Thatcher is Not a Role Model,” Observer. 25 Nov. 1990: 15.

Showalter, Elaine. Feminist Criticism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Silverthorne, Jeanne. Review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.Artforum 28 (1989–90): 22–24.

Thomson, Andrew. Margaret Thatcher: The Woman Within. London: W. H. Allen, 1989.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist Thought. London: Routledge, 1993.

Van Dúlmen, Richard. Los inicios de la europa moderna, Historia universal siglo XXI. 24 Madrid: Siglo XXI ed., 1984.

Van Wert, William F. Review of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.Film Quarterly (1990–91): 42–50.

Wright, D. G. 1990 Revolution and Terror in France 1789–1795. Harlow (Essex): Longman.

Young, Hugo. One of Us. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Richard Falcon (review date January 2000)

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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 list of artists could be matched. Griselda's chaste nun in starched linen? Try Rembrandt, Diderot and de Sade. The Madame Butterfly syndrome of the oriental female used and abandoned by a western male? How about Delacroix, Ingres, Flaubert and Matisse? It is also intended as a comic (a word not readily associated with Greenaway) homage to both Fellini and Godard. But at the same time it is his conceptually thinnest and visually least ravishing film.

As a comic meditation on cinema's contribution to the topography of male fantasy, 8[frac12] Women begins—in very Godardian fashion—with money as Philip signs a contract transferring ownership of some pachinko parlours to him. The pachinko parlours with their little silver balls are the first comic link between money and sex in the chain of financial exchanges that transforms Philip's Geneva chateau into a brothel. Philip, unlike the earlier hubristic Greenaway technocrats (draughtsmen, natural historians, architects and so on), is a grieving businessman. But as in A Zed & Two Noughts, this grief instigates a deviation towards taboo rather than condolence and reassurance, which Greenaway has always disliked in “dominant cinema.” The Vermeer-like composition of Philip next to his wife's deathbed and the misogyny of Philip's comment that she was asleep when their son Storey was conceived are chilly moments leading to the film's most perverse and effective sequence when father and son sleep together. It's an act which recommends itself to Greenaway because, unlike sons sleeping with their mothers, it's something which supposedly “has no name.”

Philip's views on conventional cinema seem very close to Greenaway's: “I hate the cinema,” he confides to Storey. “Everybody feeling the same thing at the same time. It's too intimate.” Video, however, allows Storey to talk Philip into sexual experimentation: lying together on a bed like teenagers, watching a tape of Fellini's 8[frac12], Philip is curious about the number of filmmakers who make films to satisfy their sexual fantasies. “All of them,” replies Storey. (His bedroom in Japan, in contrast with Philip's book-lined chateau, is full of television monitors; the relative absence of the written word here along with the film's frequent close-ups also set this apart from recent Greenaway films.) When the pair's private bordello is up and running, Philip explicitly links it to what used to be termed the ‘plenitude’ offered by the cinematic apparatus: “Most films are about what people haven't got: sex and happiness. We have them both.” Unfortunately, given the film's lack of eroticism, a more resonant moment for many will be the one when father and son compare bodies in front of a mirror and Storey wonders whether “all this narcissism is really boring.”

The invocation of Fellini is deeply ironic. 8[frac12]—centred on Fellini's alter ego Marcello Mastroianni's search for an actress to embody the ideal woman—pre-empted the allusive richness of Greenaway's cinema. Fellini's vitality and profound scepticism towards intellectualism as a solution to the creative impasse there seem worlds apart from Greenaway's aloof taxonomy. The fetishistic perspex corset worn by pig-loving Beryl after her fall from her horse and the wheelchair-bound “half-woman” Giulietta (seemingly named after Fellini's wife Guilietta Masina) seem a curiously insulting form of homage, closer to Cronenberg's Crash than Fellini. The final chapter of this saga—the destruction of the bordello—is intended to invoke Godard's recent deconstruction of cinema: the reason why, for Greenaway, we cannot return to the art cinema of Fellini. This is territory many will feel Greenaway has investigated more successfully outside cinema, for example in his grandiose installation In the Dark for the Spellbound exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery which broke film-making down into its constituent parts in Godardian fashion.

Perhaps to counter inevitable charges of misogyny, the women in the film's climax take charge again. However, the terms of this female revenge smack also of male self-pity (“Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters—it's a one-way street,” Palmira tells the other women). Maybe the strongest impression left by 8[frac12] Women is that the constraints of the feature film against which Greenaway has always chafed have led him to paint himself into the kind of misanthropic self-referential corner his other films always narrowly avoided. Ultimately, these men behaving badly are comically indulged: Philip dies in bed with his dream woman, and Storey, left alone with the half-woman of the narcissistic, male, erotic-cinematic imagination, has the earth move for him.

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

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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, achieve a density of visual imagery that can only invite comparisons with painting. This richness allows him to construct films that do not rely on actor-led drama, but instead work with ideas of symmetry and number, the solving of puzzles, the reading of lists—games that would be impossibly bookish on the silver screen without his extraordinary sensory payback.

Born in 1942, in Newport, Wales, Greenaway trained as a painter. He began working as a film editor in 1965, spending 11 years editing British government public information films. It was doubtless here that Greenaway acquired a taste for the somewhat surreal yet always deadpan documentary narration that characterizes some of his films. While still at the UK Central Office of Information, he began to make his own films, as well as paint, write, and curate exhibitions. He continues to pursue all these activities.

It is a sign of the struggle he has faced, however, that his greatest successes have been films where a more conventional idea of story dominates: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) and The Pillow Book (1995). But it is his even more stylized works such as his early masterpiece, The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), and Prospero's Books (1991) for which he is ultimately more likely to be remembered.

Much of Greenaway's work in the 1990s had made use of new technologies such as the Quantel Paintbox. The technology has been conspicuous on the screen, not because the director has used it to produce ultra-realistic special effects à laTitanic, but for nearly the opposite reason, for its creation of unreal images of new lushness. Viewing images inset within images, images layered upon one another, images within frames and frames within images, audiences were forcibly reminded of the artificiality of the medium they were viewing as if they were regarding a framed painting on a gallery wall. These devices, pioneered in Prospero's Books, were woven increasingly naturally into the story of The Pillow Book, a film which added fresh layers of graphical imagery through collaboration with the calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander, writing Japanese lettering on the bodies of the actors.

Greenaway's new film, 8[frac12] Women, which will be released in the United States later this spring, appears to reject new technology and return to a more traditional idea of film-making. With its big closeups and naturalistic dialogue, it is perhaps even something of a sop to hidebound critics who will this time find themselves flattered with filmic, rather than artistic, references to Fellini and Godard. The story concerns a widower whose son encourages him to embark upon a journey of sexual rediscovery by installing a bordello. The women therein allow Greenaway to indulge his cabalistic passions as they display a catalogue of fantasy stereotypes.

8[frac12] Women will do little to prepare critics for Greenaway's next work, however. The Tulse Luper Suitcase is a massive undertaking involving films and television programs whose material will be embellished and interconnected by means of companion CD-ROMs and an internet site that will permit audiences to explore a volume of information far in excess of that which could sensibly be conveyed by traditional means. (“Tulse Luper” is an alter ego Greenaway invented for himself in his teenage years and a character who has appeared in earlier films; the bare bones of the project may be seen at

In audacity, the multimedia project parallels Richard Wagner's attempt to create the musical Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) in the nineteenth century. Greenaway aims to do the same for the visual media, uniting film, painting, text and graphic arts such as calligraphy and typography with new interactive media. The parallels Greenaway draws for himself—with Wagner, Rembrandt, Shakespeare—might seem pretentious and verging on the megalomaniacal. But film is a field of megalomaniacs, and when one considers the banal ambitions of most Hollywood egos, at least Greenaway's vision offers a challenge to the medium. Peter Greenaway implicitly invites all creative artists to question the conventions of their own media, especially of those, like design, which are dependent on rapidly advancing technology.

[Aldersey-Williams:] As one who is interested above all in the visual, you have spoken of four tyrannies of the cinema: the text, the actors, the camera and the frame. It seems we're still stuck with all of them.

[Greenaway:] They still are anxieties because they have come about in cinema for reasons which perhaps have nothing to do with film as film or with making portrayals of the world through the moving image. It's curious to me how the film business is couched with characteristics which are more obviously to do with technologies and money. We shoot at 24 frames a second, which is basically the cheapest number of frames to give us the greatest sense of illusion. But we now know that 60 frames a second would be much better. Or take the frame, a totally artificial device which doesn't exist in real life. It doesn't even represent the periphery of our vision, which is far more amorphous. It's a convenience, and all conveniences should be examined and re-examined. Let's seriously consider: Do we need the notion of the fixed rectangle? What is it there for? Where has it come from? What are our purposes? Why do we view all the plastic arts through this phenomenon which is such an artificiality?

The frame is a convenience which has been re-examined in modern art.

It was a Renaissance creation. It didn't exist before the Renaissance, because most painting was intimately related with the spaces of architecture. You go into a Gothic cathedral and you find every aspect ratio under the sun and it's a painted surface. So somewhere, at some time, somebody suggested the notion of this parallelogram as the opportune performance area within which art should practice. And there have been so many imitators. There's the proscenium arch of theater. Shakespearean theater doesn't have that use of the parallelogram. Take Monteverdi's first attempts at making opera in Sienna and Bologna. They adopted that notion of the landscapes of someone like Claude Lorraine going back and back and back with a series of rectangles one behind the other, until it became an idée fixe in opera houses and theaters around the world, so that we always look at live action drama through this wretched rectangle.

Cinema, of course, in its early days copied that notion, and television has then copied that. I believe there was an interesting experiment in the 1960s where the aspect ratios of a couple of thousand paintings of the Renaissance were put into a computer, and lo and behold, they came out with an average which again was related to our cinema screen. So there is a kind of unwritten consensus about the ideal proportions. But we are not stuck with it. There's been a continual non-questioning, it seems to me, of the rigidity of the frame. Now it's about time that we did something about it. Let's look about and see what other people have done.

You're right about painters. Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns have all pushed and pulled at what you can do. Rothko and company created paintings which were so big that they went beyond the periphery of your vision as you stood before them. Now we have Omnimax and Imax which play the same sort of game, and virtual reality which explodes the notion of the frames and so on. We shouldn't forget, of course, that this is a Western obsession. The Orientals don't have a frame. They don't see the need for it. It's just a particular Western device, a construction, which needs re-examining.

What can one do about it?

There have been many experiments, but they have been basically to do with decoration and not with structure, which isn't good enough. I think the idea of simply sitting in a cinema and looking in one direction is a peculiar phenomenon. It doesn't exist in an art gallery where paintings are on four walls. And I think that post–Walt Disney adventure playgrounds and everything that stands for will gradually break up this tyranny of looking in one direction at one rectangle. What about the ceiling, the floor and sides, and consequential splitting up of those screens? It's happening, isn't it? It's happening in all sorts of meta-cinema conditions.

It's not happening as art, but as spectacle. The sort of films you get in Imax theaters are not of a type that provides an aesthetic experience. Yet for a filmmaker to be able to push in a different direction seems to demand new technology.

I think it's with us. [The experimental director] Abel Ganz tried in the 1929, but it was just too cumbersome, with huge celluloid projectors, a non-sympathetic architecture. Just look at the news on television. We don't even worry about it now. It's pictures within pictures, frames within frames, bringing together this language which in a sense has been forecast a long way ahead, but we didn't have the technology to do it. Now we do.

This element of design is clearly important in your work. Dialogue is highly scripted, the action is diagrammed. Every frame is meticulously composed and framed. This all seems to celebrate the tyrannies you complain about. Is this necessary, in the interim, before the means exist to distribute some multi-media product that's less constrained than a film designed for projection in a movie theater?

It's like the scab you need to scratch all the time. John Cage famously said that if you introduce more than 20 percent of innovation into any artwork, you're immediately going to lose 80 percent of your audience. It's an educative process, and they have to catch up with you.

What about the verbal tyrannies of script and actors?

I think we've had a hundred years of illustrated text [in film]. Illustration in the English language is a dirty word. I don't want to be an illustrator, I want to be a prime creator. I don't want to shift the particular characteristics of a textual vocabulary into a visual vocabulary. If an object is made in one medium that's the medium that it should be thought of and perceived and received in. So there are great problems here. We don't really have a visual cinema. We don't really in some curious way have a visual television. But that's to do with our huge educational processes. You and I have been trained to be very, very sophisticated in text, both visual and aural, and it's taken us a long time. All our childhood we were putting together bits of that vocabulary. There's very little equivalent training in terms of training the eye to see images.

Constraints help people. This is one of the reasons that your four tyrannies aren't resisted more often. You playfully reference these tyrannies, with a camera pointing at a Kabuki stage in 8[frac12] Women, for example, or the constant sight of the artist's framing device in The Draughtsman's Contract. So you draw attention to these tyrannies, but you also impose new ones of your own which become your own trademarks or mannerisms—lists, documentary narration, bilateral symmetry, color symbolism and so on. Why do you do that?

It's to demonstrate artificiality. Cinema is a deeply artificial medium, and there's a way in which I want to show that when you watch a film of mine you are only watching a film, hence not just the bilateral symmetry but other ideas such as a self-consciously shallow stage depth and the deliberate use of perspective devices. I think there's always something to learn by looking over your shoulder at the hypotheses which supposedly are no longer relevant to 20th-century life. I'm fascinated, for example, by Renaissance paintings, such as the Sacra Conversazione by Piero della Francesca, where the Virgin Mary, as the center of the world, appears in the middle, and the saints are all arranged like characters. Those ideas of bilateral symmetry are fascinating in their own right, but let's see if we can use them—in a good postmodernist sense—to re-enliven and re-excite the sheer phenomenon of looking, looking, looking.

What's the excitement of essentially halving the amount of information on the screen by mirroring it? There's the same kind loss of opportunity to introduce new visual information in your frequent ritualized repetition of scenes which arises from using lists as a structural device in place of a conventional story.

Borges said the world is a place of symmetries and mirrors. There are notions about history repeating itself, the looping of ideas in text and imagery, related to self-reflexivity, the way we look at ourselves, to do with self-consciousness. An idea I often play with is to do with objects not in twos but in threes. You put it in a situation once and it's incidental and ephemeral. Twice and it's coincidental and therefore maybe to do with acts of God if we believe in those things. You put it in three times and it's intentional. We're working on an opera called Writing to Vermeer, and we're trebling up every single activity just to demonstrate the sheer self-conscious activity of repeating events so you really do understand and comprehend them. In Vermeer there is the deliberate repeating of motifs—the same costumes, the same chairs, the same light that always comes from the left-hand side. All of these things give a very minimalist and restrained area of performance. Vermeer's paintings themselves are very conscious of frames. Vermeer put frames within frames within frames.

You're working with the Dutch minimalist composer Louis Andriessen on the Vermeer opera, and you've had a long collaboration with Michael Nyman whose music is prominent in many of your films. Tell me about the importance of music to you.

Well, I don't think there ever was such a thing called silent cinema. There was always some notion of sound even if it was the sound of the auditorium in a John Cageian sense. I know you can create films without music, but I think it deeply impoverishes the cinematic art. In my long relationship with Michael Nyman—certainly in The Draughtsman's Contract—we tried very hard, like the Prokofiev-Eisenstein situation with Alexander Nevsky, to define structure that would combine both. I've been very interested in those connections, but unfortunately most music in the cinema is decorative, there to emphasize. It's very seldom structural.

You paint. I want to know what a painterly eye achieves in film other than dropping in carefully contrived references to art history which are in a sense just clever sight gags.

It does irritate me when people say my films look like paintings. I mean, come on. That's not what it's about. It's a whole essence to do with information received by the eye, not through some textual excuse. The very best painting explains the world without giving you a narrative and without going via a textual excuse.

Don't the sight gags, the film tableaux modeled after Dutch still lifes and so on, sabotage this more sophisticated objective?

I think they add levels and layers, almost like an overture. So if I reproduce The Art of Painting [a painting whose title is often mistranslated as The Artist in his Studio], a very profound consideration by Vermeer of what painting is about, but then I begin to slice it up and deconstruct it in other ways, then I've given you an introduction to the ways that I want you to think about what I'm doing. Of course, inevitably and without apology I rely upon the audience's appreciation of the original, which is always a problem. Who looks at E.T. by Spielberg and regards it as the resurrection myth? But if you know that's there as well, it does give another layer to that film—which again relates it to the whole history of Western art.

What about the painter's technical sensibility, in terms of light and texture and so on?

Let's take color. Very few people actually use color in an in-depth sense in the cinema, or if they do it is again illustrative, if you take the great flush of movies in the 1950s simply reproducing the world of Toulouse-Lautrec or van Gogh when color became ubiquitous. The closest for me to admire would be certain films like Pierrot le Fou made by Godard who used primary colors in a very strong way to do with association, to make your eyes in a retinal sense begin to understand what he was trying to do rather than just simply to make decorative allusions. I tried this in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, where not only are the locations of the film color-coded, but when people step from one scene into another their clothing changes too, to draw your attention loudly and self-consciously to the notion there is a language with color we can use in an almost abstract way. The cinema is resistant, of course, to abstraction.

Old art forms, painting and music, and new technology make a pretty heady mixture.

I feel that the more knowledge we have, the better our experience and delight and fascination and excitement and insight. So let's try and use as many communication forms as possible. Wagner's notion of the total art form was suggested many, many years ago. Bernini and people before that were “multimedia artists.” It's existed forever really. I look towards the possibility of communication through as many links as possible, and I would like to reconsider and break apart the orthodox links and introduce huge areas of new sorts of information which might historically have been the preserve of specialists. Look how night-time cameras have given us information about the natural history world, for example. It's a new tool giving us new insights and new aesthetic possibilities. Or the whole business which seems so banal by now of simply changing speed, go slow and go fast. Botanists began to learn more about how plants grow, so there's a direct, almost practical association here. But now let's take this particular information gathering, turn it back on itself and use it for aesthetic ends.

And what stories do you tell with these phenomena?

I'm a bit worried about your saying “stories” because I don't think cinema's a very good narrative medium. If you want to tell stories, be a writer. It's far more powerful.

What I mean is what do you do to make sure that the content is not about itself and the technology?

Well, first of all, it doesn't matter particularly. Don't get too worried about that. The most significant artworks have always been about themselves. Rembrandt's Night Watch is about the business of painting, and Hamlet is very much about the business of theater. I think the supreme artworks do have that self-consciousness. Of course, it can fall over into total indulgence, and we must watch that. But I think that self-conscious edge is the mark of a masterwork, so I wouldn't apologize for it or find an excuse for it. I think you always have to build it in.

Let's take a film. The excitement that I get in making a product is not available to you because I can be aware of all the processes. The script, if we have to have a script, is a literary artifact that has to work in a particular way. Then I have the business of discussing backgrounds, plans and elevations, like an architect. That's all fascinating material, providing the skeletons before you put the flesh on. But the demands of contemporary cinema would suggest that I don't show you these blueprints, that I don't show you the thought processes, which I think is very sad in a way. A lot of painting, [R. B.] Kitaj for example, manages to give you thought process and final image in an extraordinarily sophisticated collage so that you become interested in the developmental processes behind an artwork as well as the final subject. I cannot tell you about processes as I would like to be able to do, but I can see ways and means of doing that, the CD-ROM phenomenon.

Your film, Prospero's Books, a retelling of The Tempest by Shakespeare, did this with the layering and nesting of multiple images in a way I found so vivid that it made conventional color films seem as if they were black-and-white …

And described by Pauline Kael [the former film critic at The New Yorker] as “visually indigestible, made by a cultural omnivore who eats with his mouth open.” So you can see even intelligences like hers are up against difficulties when we push at the barriers of orthodoxy.

The Paintbox was prominent in Prospero's Books and your 1995 success, The Pillow Book, but seems to have been neglected in your new film, 8[frac12] Women. Was using technology just a passing phase?

That was a deliberation. With the very title, 8[frac12] Women, I wanted to refer back to the straightforward chronological narrative art of a high point of cinema in the late 1950s, early 1960s, both for reasons of homage and because I wanted to promote dialogue in a way that I've never done since probably since The Draughtsman's Contract.

Does that make 8[frac12] Women an aberration?

Rather significantly for me, it is eight-and-a-half. It is indeed the eight-and-a-halfth feature film that we've made. Eight, The Pillow Book, and nine, The Tulse Luper Suitcase, are really the significant ones. This is one huge, fascinating, exciting experience. We're not necessarily making closures here. I hope all the works wherever they are, not just on the silver screen but in other media as well, are all part of some huge investigation into the condition of the moving image.

The Tulse Luper Suitcase comes back to technology. Tell me a bit more about how it's going to take shape and how its media link to one another.

The ambition is to make three, possibly four, feature films for the Venice Film Festival next year and every year for four years which capitalize on the particular buzz that only cinema can engender. There's a suggested 52-part television series which will contain the same information, but also more, and will give you variations on a theme. There will be a couple of CD-ROMs, or its technological equivalent, by which you the audience can manipulate the information. There will also inevitably be a book, and it's also beginning to happen on the Internet.

How is a typical audience member or viewer expected to engage with this material?

Let me give you some of the strategies. One of the characters wants to rewrite the 1,001 Nights. I will introduce all these narratives either directly or obliquely in the feature films, but I don't want to spend masses of time wasting an audience's attention. They will be able to find all these 1,001 tales on the internet, one every night just like Scheherezade tells the Sultan, over a period of three years. Another situation is the Tulse Luper suitcase. The suitcase is a fantastic metaphor for contemporary maneuverability and restlessness, carrying our possessions with us. Again, all the suitcases will be introduced along with their fakes and repetitions and bogus apocrypha in the feature films, but you the audience can pack or unpack these suitcases to your heart's content on a CD-ROM or its equivalent.

What about important media that you have not explicitly included, such as painting?

Some of the earliest films I made were my excuse to get my paintings seen. I couldn't get them in a gallery so I put them on film. There's some of that element still there. We are negotiating to have a big exhibition of Tulse Luper ephemera at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and the films will make reference to this exhibition with a series of constantly warring academics who will consider and reconsider the artworks and their significance.

So it's a massive project. Why must The Tulse Luper Suitcase be so all-encompassing?

We need a defining work to legitimize somehow the aesthetic possibilities of the new media. We almost need Eisenstein's October. About the same time elapsed between the beginnings of cinema and Eisenstein's October [made in 1927 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution] when we began to realize the full potential of the medium as there is, from when these new technologies began to get a serious grip on our imaginations until now. So we're waiting for the defining work, I think, which legitimizes what comes afterwards, the James Joyceian phenomenon which pushes to the edge so that you have to reinvent the language. I want to be able to use the characteristics of all these different media, but also find an audience that looks at the film, buys the CD-ROM, plugs into the Internet site and watches TV for a total possibility of examining this huge new creative world.

Kevin Thomas (review date 26 May 2000)

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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 sensualist who celebrates the beauty of the women in his all-encompassing embrace.

Even the most stunning woman will have her pores revealed in close-up by Greenaway, for whom lust seems invariably dry as dust. (You have to wonder what Greenaway and fellow Brit, painter Lucian Freud, with their common preoccupation with less than perfect flesh, think about each other's work.)

Yet this film, one of Greenaway's most amusing and accessible, actually arrives at moments of tenderness, even love, fleeting though they may be. 8[frac12] Women finds Greenaway in a contemplative mood, musing about the interplay of sex and love and mortality, and the bonds between father and son—within the context of mordant absurdist humor, to be sure. It's not that Greenaway has gone soft and sentimental but rather that he's dared to allow a rare drop of humanity to emerge in his characters' relationships with one another.

In jaunty, elliptical fashion Greenaway introduces Philip Emmenthal (John Standing), a Geneva-based financier and banker, in the midst of driving so hard a bargain in acquiring a Kyoto pachinko parlor for his business associate and architect son Storey (Matthew Delamere) that he gets his nose bloodied.

Not long after Storey agrees to accept as a payment of indebtedness the sexual favors of pretty, fiery Simato (Shizuka Inoh), as urged by her father—and her fiance—he has to return to Geneva when his mother dies. Philip is bereft, overcome with the loss of his wife, more a companion than a lover, and Storey suggests that to cheer himself up his father turn his immense period palace into a virtual harem. From Japan (depicted here as constantly rattled by earthquakes) Storey brings Simato; the exquisite Mio (Kirina Mano), whose goal is to be more female than the Kabuki's female impersonators; and his father's relentlessly efficient representative Kito (Vivian Wu).

Additions to the harem present themselves rapidly. Toni Collette's Griselda satisfies Philip's fantasies involving naked nuns only to discover she might really like to be a nun and even start her own order. Amanda Plummer's highly theatrical Beryl has a passion for horses and horse-riding and for her immense pig Hortense, and lands in one of Philip's many guest suites to recuperate from an injury.

Within an increasingly rich and diverse assortment of fine ladies, the most captivating is Polly Walker's Palmira, a sophisticated adventuress who failed to lasso Philip some three years earlier and is taking a leave of absence from her ardent affair with an opera singer (Don Warrington) to snare him this time.

To be sure, Philip's harem-building is not without pitfalls, virtually all of them funny. These women are not in Philip's thrall; rather it is he who is in theirs. If there is a moral to the film—and there may be many—it is that in amour, women are always the winners, and that men toy with them at their peril.

8[frac12] Women has the superb production design and glorious cinematography (by the veteran Sacha Vierny) typical of Greenaway works, plus a raft of scintillating portrayals. Standing has lent staunch support in many a film, and it is a pleasure to find him in the central role as a man of formidable savoir-faire.

Philip and Storey are wits rarely at a loss for words—even at the movies watching 8[frac12] or at the opera for a performance of “La Giaconda.” They're engaging, if astringent, personalities, but you wouldn't want to sit behind them in a theater.


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