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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

I have a kind of love/hate reaction to the writer-director Peter Greenaway, whose movies are very definitely not for everyone. By and large I have found his films beautiful to behold and usually quirkily involving, but too often a little too 'precious' for words, too self-consciously arty for my taste. I was not terribly taken with the above movie when I first saw it many years ago, but had promised Sian a copy should it ever be shown on television. (Shamefacedly I must admit that I put a copy on my hard disc last Christmas and then proceeded to delete it in error.) Fortunately FilmFour scheduled it again in the recent wee hours. I needed to re-watch it to edit out the ads and was hoping that I would be sufficiently taken with it this time around to keep a copy for myself as well -- but more of that later.

The basic story is of three women of three generations, all named Cissie Colpitts, who decide to do away with their unsatisfactory husbands by drowning them -- in a bathtub, in the ocean, and in a swimming pool respectively. Drowning of course is the classic way of disposing of rats! The three are played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson. I have seen them described as grandmother, mother, and daughter (which seems a little unlikely), as mother and two daughters, and as mother, daughter, and niece -- but frankly it matters not. What matters is that they stick together in their personal allegiances and criminal pursuits. They are able to get away with their 'crimes' with the connivance of Bernard Hill's coroner who rules on natural causes of death in exchange for possible, but never realised, offers of sexual favours. He and his son Smut (now there's a name) are the main characters in this grotesque fable of life on the Suffolk coast.

While this is meant to be the most accessible of all of Greenaway's films, I would argue otherwise, since the film is loaded (nearly to the point of sinking) with esoteric touches, symbolism, and strange behaviour. It was not released in the US until 1991 and was only released then on the strength of his 'scandalous' next film "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover". In contrast to ' Drowning', that movie as well as "The Baby of Macon" and "The Belly of an Architect" seem almost straightforward. In all of his films, Greenaway manages to combine a painterly, pictorial eye (enhanced here by Sacha Vierney's impeccable cinematography) with a bizarre story-telling sensibility. This movie opens with a young girl, dressed like a fugitive from Velazquez' Las Meninas, skip-roping up to 100 as she counts off the names of heavenly stars. Then the set is progressively numbered up to 100 with the numbers appearing in various and unexpected places -- on posts, on pictures, on paper-chase runners, and even on dead cows. In fact one could play a game of spotting all of the sequential numbers, although some are only spoken rather than pictured.

As Plowright's character says, 'why care about other people, life is just a game', and indeed the characters partake of their own made-up games with names like 'The Great Death Game' and 'Hangman's Cricket'. Smut, who is obsessed with creepy-crawlies and who at one stage attempts to circumcise himself with scissors, celebrates each death with a fireworks display. In the end he plays his own hanging game, the object of which is to punish those who have caused unhappiness by their own selfishness. He says this is the best game of all because the winner is also the loser and the judge's decision is always final.

So did I warm to this movie the second time around? The answer is still 'no'. It may be gorgeous to look at, but it is impossible to empathise with its totally unsympathetic and amoral characters. It's all an intellectual exercise beautifully presented, but with a complete absence of humanity or heart.


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