Eisenstein in Guanajuato

 

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Peter Greenaway’s new film is the first in a planned trilogy about one of his heroes, the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.

 

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

 

It is well known that after making three masterpieces of silent cinema Sergei Eisenstein travelled to Mexico where his project to make a film about that country ended catastrophically. Amidst accusations of shooting excessive footage, the financiers called a halt and Eisenstein never had the chance to edit the material.

Now we have an amazing work set in 1931 and concentrating on the experiences in Mexico of the 33-year-old Russian. Since this is a film written and directed by the maverick British director Peter Greenaway, one would not expect a work that played like a standard biopic, but Eisenstein in Guanajuato is even more extraordinary than one could have anticipated. Two elements that can almost be taken for granted are, indeed, present: the colour photography by Reinier van Brummelen brings out the production values wonderfully and the two leading actors spend a substantial time naked. Nudity has long been a feature of Greenaway’s work and this film’s predecessor, Goltzius and the Pelican Company, alarmingly suggested that it had taken over, becoming an obsession that distracted from the life story which was the subject of the film. However, while the inclusion of the most explicit scene of anal sex ever passed by the BBFC may suggest that the trend continues here, the fact is that Eisenstein was a gay man who had made his art central to his life to such an extent that it was only during his time in Mexico that he belatedly lost his virginity. Consequently the sexual element, the acceptance of his sexuality encouraged by Mexican attitudes to sex and death – the embrace of Eros and Thanatos – is central to this film’s concerns. But it is also about what art means and about the conflicts with commercialism faced by a real artist.

However, what makes Greenaway’s film genuinely extraordinary is its bravura style. Factually based though it is, this is expressionist cinema that invites you to relish the mode adopted. As a period piece it starts in black and white but these shots are intercut with ones in colour and there’s even an image that is half and half. More significantly still, the ’Scope format is used so that split screen shots can frequently appear, some featuring actual photographs of people that Eisenstein had met. Furthermore, various extracts from the music of Prokofiev are woven into the film’s fabric to good effect. Less tellingly one or two sequences contain over-elaborate camera movement (a satirical scene featuring the wife of Eisenstein’s financial backer, the author Upton Sinclair, is the weakest in the film). It also has to be admitted that on occasion the film teeters on the edge of absurdity. Indeed this Eisenstein can be a clownish, eccentric figure yet he remains sympathetic. But it is the film’s originality and panache embraced by Greenaway with absolute confidence that make it a memorable addition to his canon, even if some audiences will resist it and even perhaps resent it. 

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti, José Montini, Cristina Velasco Lozano, Maya Zapata, Lisa Owen, Stelio Savante.


Dir Peter Greenaway, Pro Bruno Felix, Femke Wolting, San Fu Maltha and Cristina Velasco L, Screenplay Peter Greenaway, Ph Reinier van Brummelen, Art Dir Ana Solares, Ed Elmer Leupen, Costumes Brenda Gómez.


Submarine/Fu Works/Paloma Negra Films/ZDF/Arte etc.-Axiom Films International Limited.
105 mins. The Netherlands/Mexico/Finland/Belgium/Germany. 2015. Rel: 22 April 2016. Cert. 18
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