Category Archives: Greenaway

Peter Greenaway’s Top Film List

Peter Greenaway is one of my all-time favourite directors. Brilliant and strange, his films by their very nature do not appeal to all. Oh well… anyway, I was delighted to discover this list of Greenaway’s favourite films, and I was curious to see what films he considered the best ever:

Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais)

Breathless (Godard)

La Notte (Antonioni)

The Rules of the Game (Renoir)

The Seventh Seal (Bergman)

Strike (Eisenstein)

Throne of Blood (Kurosawa)

Fellini’s Casanova (Fellini)

8 1/2 (Fellini)

The Marquise of O (Rohmer)

This list appeared in Facets Movie Lovers DVD guide 9/07 p19

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A Zed and Two Noughts (1990)

 “Grief doesn’t flavour anything. It’s just sour.”

a-zed-and-two-noughtsIn Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed and Two Noughts, the wives of twin zoologists Oliver (Eric Deacon) and Oswald Deuce (Brian Deacon) are killed in a freak car accident outside of a zoo. The driver, a woman named Alba (Andrea Ferreol) is pulled from the wreckage. Alba survives, but her leg is amputated. Oliver and Oswald are deeply grief-stricken, and they become obsessed with decay and the process of the body’s decomposition. Oscar and Oswald return to science to solve the questions they have about life and death. Oscar and Oswald initially blame Alba for the deaths of their wives, but a firm bond gradually develops between these three characters who are all mired in the grief process. The mysterious Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) is the fourth main character in the film. Venus is a teller of dirty stories who entertains the brothers while attempting to sway them from their grief.

A great deal of the film’s action takes place in and around the zoo. Here, Oliver and Oswald conduct their experiments, which involve the decay of fruit, and then they progress to mapping the decay of dead animals. Most of the decay is recorded with time-delay photography, so the grosser elements of decomposition are structured to resemble a frantic, chaotic dance of sloughing tissue. I don’t have the strongest stomach for these sorts of things, but it wasn’t too traumatic to watch. Alba is also subjected to an experiment of sorts. She claims she is “an excuse for medical experiments and art theory”–her doctor, Van Meergen, is actually a veterinary surgeon who is obsessed with the Dutch painter, Vermeer. His obsession seems to include turning real people into a living canvas, and his unscrupulous approach to medicine is tainted by his desire to convert Alba into a Vermeer subject. Van Meergen states that the “first symptom of decay” is the destruction of symmetry. Hence, Alba’s decay begins when she loses one leg. Symbolically, Oliver and Oswald attempt to restore symmetry by “joining” bodies in a suit sewed to encompass both of them. As the film progresses, Oliver and Oswald grow increasingly more alike, until they appear practically identical.

If this all sounds a bit bizarre, then you’re on the right track. A Zed and Two Noughts is one of Peter Greenaway’s most difficult and complex films. It’s also one of the least accessible. A Zed and Two Noughts is the first Greenaway film to team producer Kees Kasander, Sacha Vierny (cinematographer), and Michael Nyman (musical score) with director, Greenaway, and this highly successful team is responsible for Greenaway’s most fascinating films. A Zed and Two Noughts is visually a stunning film. Each scene is an exercise in perfection. The film’s failure, however, comes in its characterizations. Alba’s accent is extremely strong, and some of her best lines are practically indecipherable. While the three main characters are motivated by grief, they remain remote and unrealistic, and they exist to promote the film’s ideas and are often quite subordinate to the sets. Nothing exists in the film by accident–all is design, symmetry, and symbolism. And if the film watcher is intrigued by Greenaway, then unraveling the symbolism of this intricate film will delight. If, however, you are new to Greenaway, I recommend you start elsewhere–with one of the more accessible films, Pillow Book or The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover for example. Build up to A Zed and Two Noughts. This one is for die-hard Greenaway fans. If you enjoy A Zed and Two Noughts I also recommend David Croenenberg’s film, Dead Ringers.

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The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

 “The space between knowing and seeing.”

draughtsmans-contractSet at the end of the 17th century, The Draughtsman’s Contract is a tale of lust, adultery and murder staged in the fantastic country estate of Compton-Anstey. Mrs. Herbert (Janet Suzman) commissions an arrogant draughtsman, Mr. Neville (Anthony Higgins) to draw 12 views of her home over the period of 14 days. Mr. Herbert (Dave Hill), the owner of the house and Mrs. Herbert’s bored husband will be in Southampton for this period, and the drawings are to be a surprise and will, or so Mrs. Herbert argues, initiate a reconciliation between husband and wife. Mr. Neville at first declines the commission and then agrees, setting a contract of 8 pounds per drawing and insisting that Mrs. Herbert grant a certain period of time each day for his “pleasure.”

Mr. Neville has an obsession with order–particularly order in nature. He demands that the area he draws is perfectly prepared for his art. And while some of this can be achieved fairly easily, he also expects to harness the weather. But there is mischief afoot, and it is as if some imp is deliberately interjecting random chaos into each of his ordered landscape drawings. A stray item of clothing, a misplaced ladder–something seems to find its way into the landscape and thereby disrupts Neville’s desire for perfect order.

Mr. Neville, a guest in the house, and a man of lower social standing than his hosts, is a disruptive element. With his arrival, he demands order to conduct his art, but his presence in the house threatens chaos–husbands are cuckolded, an old lover usurped, and even the line of succession is questioned. In addition, Mr. Neville’s politics challenge prevailing opinion in the household. Mr. Neville’s sympathies are for the Scots, the Irish, the Catholics, and he despises Germans. With the protestant William of Orange on the throne, and the deposed Catholic King James II living in exile, these opinions are dangerous. Yet Mr. Neville is so arrogant, he fails to recognize reality.

While the social discourse between the characters remains at all times polite and delivered without a tempest of emotions, under the surface ugly emotions simmer. Reality vs. illusion is the film’s main theme, and unfortunately, when it comes to human conduct, Mr. Neville seems unable to distinguish between the two. On one hand, we have polite social discourse, but this frequently labyrinthine discourse–laden with double entendre–is a method of concealing real intentions. While the ambitious Mr. Neville prides himself on his intelligence, there is much he simply does not see. Just as Mr. Neville’s drawings are one dimensional representations of Compton-Anstey, the words exchanged by the polite company in Mrs. Herbert’s house are a mere illusion–representations of the truth. As always with Greenaway films, the resilient, deadly female of the species hold a great deal of the power, and just who is really in control here is deliciously revealed over the course of the film.

Writer and director Peter Greenaway creates notoriously difficult and illusive films–layered with meaning. In The Draughtsman’s Contract Greenaway, once again manages to perfectly recreate an age–replete with the period’s obsession with geometric design and perfect order. The Draughtsman’s Contract–like many of director Peter Greenaway’s films–is highly-stylized, and is essentially a series of elegant tableaux which so easily could be beautiful paintings that simply come to life when the camera rolls. Michael Nyman–Greenaway’s composer of choice creates a baroque score that perfectly matches the gorgeous scenery. My old VHS tape of The Draughtsman’s Contract was frustratingly dark in some scenes, but this issue was addressed in the DVD, and certainly made the purchase worthwhile.

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8 1/2 Women (1999)

 “She’s taken your fantasies and run with them to the point of logical exhaustion.”

8 1/2 Women DVDGreenaway films are very provocative especially when contemplating the dynamics of male-female relationships and testing the limits of the audience’s comfort zone by confronting societal taboos. Greenaway’s most accessible film to date is The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover. If Greenaway were a ‘normal’ filmmaker in the traditional sense, this would have become his breakthrough film, and from there, next stop Hollywood with the usual pap. But this is not what happened. Greenway remains true to himself and his ideals, avoiding mainstream media and producing consistently difficult films.

8 1/2 Women is the story of a capitalist who indulges his runaway appetites to the point of his own destruction. John Standing (Philip Emmenthal) is a wealthy middle-aged Geneva resident who is depressed by his wife’s death. His only son, Storey (Matthew Delamare) arrives from Japan to console him. Storey expresses an interest in his father’s sex life, and the two men discuss their sexual experiences noting that they are influenced by their generational expectations. Storey is also curious about his father’s body, and during their first evening together, Storey insists on sleeping nude with his father. In order to provide a distraction to his father’s grief and depression, Storey takes his father to see Fellini’s film 8 ½, and this sparks a discussion about monogamy, and whether or not the fantastic women displayed on celluloid by film directors really exist or whether they are fantasy women-figments of the imagination. John Standing muses: “why do you think Fellini kept inventing all these fantastic women?”

Encouraged by Storey, John Standing sheds his monogamous past and begins collecting women, turning his Geneva mansion into a brothel and installing an exotic woman in each room. John, who has long-held fantasies about women in Jane Austen novels, finds women to suit each mood and various tastes. The women range from former nun Griselda (Toni Collette) to Beryl (Amanda Plummer) a horse thief who has a committed relationship with her rather large pet pig.

During the course of the film, most viewers will probably experience a range of discomfort. There’s a certain degree of bad taste involved here. The half a woman referred to in the title, for example, is an amputee the father and son team keep locked up in their Geneva mansion. Taboos discarded and challenged by the male characters include bestiality, incest, and male nudity. And, of course, there’s the maintenance of women kept and housed like exotic pets exclusively to provide sexual services for their wealthy male employers. The moral boundaries tested not only occur between the filmmaker and the audience, but also occur between John Standing and his son. As a result, a unique triptych exchange takes place between filmmaker, fictional characters and audience.

But, since this is a Greenaway film, this is not an exercise in male fantasy and the depersonalization and commodification of women. Rather it’s a story about exactly what occurs when fantasy becomes reality, and rather like putting matter and anti-matter together, an explosion occurs. As the father and son run amok in their private brothel, it becomes increasingly unclear just who is satisfying whose fantasies. The men would appear to hold all the power, but women in Greenway films are always miraculous creatures who will subvert male dominance with swift, delectable vengeance. To Greenaway, one woman is dangerous, but only a kamikaze male with an appetite for self-destruction would contemplate an entire collection. As with any Greenaway film, expect gorgeous sets and the truly bizarre. Greenaway films are not particularly accessible, and they are both cerebral and complex, laced with allusions and the blackest of black humour.

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