In the three decades since Peter Greenaway first stormed the arthouses of the world with films like Prospero’s Books and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the sad state of film distribution may have minimized his ability to reach an audience, but his style hasn’t changed much. His latest film, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, differs from the rest of his distinctive oeuvre only in that his protagonist is a filmmaker instead of a painter.
To Greenaway and many others, Sergei Eisenstein is the filmmaker, the man who more than any other single figure invented film grammar as we now know it in his features Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October. Eisenstein in Guanajuato is set during a period in 1931 when the Russian, having failed to get a project rolling in Hollywood, journeyed sough of the border for his famously unfinished epic Que Viva Mexico. His professional undoing, the film suggests, may have had to do with his personal blossoming, his first sexual experience at the hands of his Mexican handler.
If you didn’t know that Eisenstein was gay, it’s likely because his homeland has done its best to keep it quiet. As portrayed by Finnish actor Elmer Back in a ridiculous white suit (purchased, Eisenstein claims, for a meeting with Charlie Chaplin), he’s about as sedate as Roberto Benigni, though considerably more literate.
The dialogue is so filled with allusions to Eisenstein’s work and writings, as well as the artistic milieu, that it would take a dozen viewings to unravel them all. Greenaway has tempered the delight in packing his digitally modified compositions that made Prospero’s Books so overwhelming, but that’s not saying much: Especially in the first half of the film, he’s always splitting the screen to pack in information including photos of the real people being discussed. Nor has he lost his taste for production design, with enormous sets that his otherwise sedate camera struggles to encompass. About the only thing that he has tempered is the Jacobean brutality that once horrified his audiences. Eisenstein in Guanajuato will be shown this week at Hallwalls.
Another filmmaker still at work with her peak days even further in the past is Lina Wertmuller, who turns 90 this year. You wouldn’t know it to see her in the new documentary Behind the White Glasses, still looking pixieish in her white hair and the matching spectacles that she has affected for most of her career. (We first see her recording a new song about attending an orgy.)
Wertmuller’s international peak was in the first half of the 1970s, when her films Swept Away, Seven Beauties, All Screwed Up, Love & Anarchy, and The Seduction of Mimi were worldwide hits and she became the first woman to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Director. There’s plenty of information about the making of those movies, including interviews with her stars Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. Further appreciation is provided by Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese, and there’s entertaining footage from her early days as an assistant director to Fellini on 8 ½. It’s at the Screening Room.
If Son of Saul hadn’t been the runaway favorite for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, the award might well have gone to A War, the kind of solid drama that has brought Denmark several other Oscars in recent years. The first half of the film alternates between Claus (Pilou Asbæk), company commander of a peacekeeping unit stationed in Afghan, and his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny), trying to deal with the stresses of raising three young children with an absent husband.
In some ways comparable to American Sniper, A War demonstrates how different a soldier’s day-to-day experiences are from wars past, thanks to cell phones that keep families in touch as well as to the uncertainties of duty in a region where the enemy is never easily identified. The film develops a second side after Claus is put into a difficult situation with no good option, and his choice puts him before a military court at home. The virtues of A War are also its biggest deficit: a leisureliness and inevitability that drain the effect from what is otherwise a solidly constructed drama. Opening Friday at the Eastern Hills.