Review by Mark Schwab
I was first introduced to Peter Greenaway in 1989 when his film THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE and HER LOVER made headlines as a filmic outrage. There was talk of X ratings and boycotts. Naturally I had to go see it, so I made my way downtown to the Camera 1 arthouse theatre (now sadly deceased) in downtown San Jose. I settled into one of the maybe 150 rickety seats with a sticky floor and braced myself. What I ended up seeing was certainly unique - THE COOK...was literate, lavish and totally offensive. But man, was I transfixed. It was like Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON crossed with John Waters' PINK FLAMINGOS. Over the next decades, Greenaway continued to make edgy work like PROSPERO'S BOOKS and GOLTZIUS AND THE PELICAN COMPANY. A former wannabe painter, Greenaway unabashedly makes full-on art films for himself, the audience be damned. How he gets his films funded is a mystery to me in today's hyper-popular culture, but thank goodness someone is still pushing the envelope old-school style.
And somehow at age 72, Greenaway has done it again with EISENSTEIN in GUANAJUATO an almost cheerfully off-the-rails story loosly based on the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein's (STRIKE, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, OKTOBER) attempt to shoot a movie in Mexico in 1931. Now the easy way to draw viewers into this would be the trials and tribulations of a stranger in a strange land trying to get a movie made under difficult conditions and flailing in hopelessness (Eisenstein shot 250 miles of film in Mexico but was not allowed to edit any of it). But that would be too easy so instead we literally zero in on Eisenstein's bedroom where he shares an almost stream of consciousness riff on Hollywood, Mexico, literature and Russian politics with his "guide" Palomino (a very game Luis Alberti).
I'm sure the Russian government will be none too pleased with what Greenaway comes up with as the reasons for Eisenstein's failure to produce a film in Mexico - the flamboyant but sexually inexperienced and repressed Eisenstein finally getting to play out his homosexual desires with a live breathing person instead of drawing doodles of them in his secret "red book". When Palomino "deflowers" our protagonist, it will be the rare viewer (of any sexual orientation) that isn't riveted and aghast at the way it is staged and performed. It's graphic and skirts close to porn, but Greenaway does just enough to keep it as "art" with bizarre dialogue and brave acting. It shows he still has real skin in the game so to speak. As the frizzy-haired Eisenstein, Finnish actor Elmer Back may be over-the-top (as Eisenstein, Back even refers to himself as a Clown with his oversized head, hands and feet) but it's effective and the right choice. It feels more like a theatre stage performance but that works here as it is perfectly in line with the bawdy imagery and keeps everything from delving into self-seriousness.
As usual with Greenaway, don't expect a typical narrative or any sense of realism. But all of his trademarks are here: striking visuals (even if he sometimes needs a green screen to get them), squirmingly crude humor, intense cultural symbolism (the Day of the Dead ceremony and museums are very well used here) and gobs of full-on frontal nudity. There's no way this kind of film is for everyone but if you are brave enough to delve into the arthouse film waters without a life jacket (and especially if you're a Greenaway fan), then EISENSTEIN in GUANAJUATO will do the trick.