DIR/WRI: Peter Greenaway • PRO: Kees Kasander • DOP: Reinier van Brummelen • ED: Elmer Leupen • DES: Ben Zuydwijk • CAST: F. Murray Abraham, Giulio Berruti, Vincent Riotta, Halina Reijn
Hendrik Goltzius, a leading engraver of the Dutch baroque era, visits a margrave’s court in Colmar (now in France). He hopes to secure funding for a printing press and a commission for a collection of illustrated biblical tales. He strikes a deal in which his cohort of actors, writers and artists, the Pelican Company, in return for money, will re-enact six sexually charged sins in tableaux vivants for the margrave’s pleasure.
Though critics still hold in high regard efforts such as The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), the films of Peter Greenaway are cinematic Marmite. Viewers tend to either love or hate them. He mixes esoteric subjects with a style that employs multilayered imagery and emphasises artificiality, making his work “inaccessible” or “difficult”, i.e. box office poison. Goltzius and the Pelican Company proves to be no exception.
The film bears the hallmarks of Greenaway’s style: ornate period settings and music, dense, carefully composed imagery, and floating text. Ben Zuydwijk’s impressive production design juxtaposes different influences, drawing on Dutch painting and more contemporary Ikea-style designs.Greenaway’s typical anachronisms also appear. A huge empty industrial warehouse serves as the setting. Goltzius recounts his story directly to the audience, telling of events earlier in his life. The tableaux vivants thus become sets within a giant set, stories within a story, complementing the film’s general theatricality.
Goltzius’ company re-enacts six biblical stories to explore a theme: Adam and Eve (voyeurism); Lot and his daughters (incest); David and Bathsheba (adultery); Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (seduction of the innocent); Samson and Delilah (prostitution); and the New Testament tale of John the Baptist and Salome, with its particularly gruesome ending (necrophilia). The margrave’s court becomes the scene of debates about morality, freedom of speech and the influence of the new humanism, while his courtiers and Goltzius’ associates become involved in sexual liaisons. How will the margrave deal with his own lust and desires?
F Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning star of Amadeus and more recently featuring in Inside Llewyn Davis, The Grand Budapest Hotel and TV’s Homeland, plays the Margrave of Alsace. The rest of the European cast speaks English with thick accents, mostly Dutch, but this benefits the film in two ways. First, it gives an authenticity to a period film where American accents can jar (à laAmadeus). Second, the accents emphasise the film’s artificiality, adding to the film’s staginess. It also leads to some humorous effects, such as Ramsey Nasr, as Goltzius, pronouncing “Genesis” so that it sounds like “anuses”.
Though Goltzius and the Pelican Company marks Greenaway’s second in a series of films concerning Dutch masters (Nightwatching, 2007, centred on Rembrandt), it might more interestingly belong to the strand of art house cinema exploring sexual explicitness. “Every visual technology, sooner or later, gets into bed with lechery,” remarks Goltzius, and Greenaway’s film comments on the ways ancient cultures, both biblical and baroque, used tales of immorality and indecent imagery to elaborate moral debates, tracing a tradition perhaps continued in recent films such as Nymphomaniac, Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Interior. Leather Bar.
Goltzius and the Pelican Company is released 11th July 2014