Peter Greenaway was one of the great European arthouse directors, lighting up the British film scene of the 1980s. His talents then faded, creating disjointed films more interested in using formalistic gimmicks than telling a good old-fashioned story. Or so the story goes. The general British critical scene has little time for Greenaway these days; whenever an event advertises his presence it claims him as director of Zed and Two Naughts, The Draughtsman’s Contract or any of his other popular early works. Since the turn of the millennium, he has directed only one film that received much critical or popular attention (2007’s Nightwatching). Despite desiring the experimental, the general audience appears to have a limit for the new, and Greenaway’s current work crosses this.
Two things cause the issues with his work: his content featuring graphic sex and nudity, and his formal techniques of layering multiple images and distorting the frame. Greenaway’s films deal with the more animalistic parts of the human experience, and do so in a deliberately non-realist way. This for, some readers, may end the review. Eisenstein in Guanajuato gorges the senses with an overabundance of information, sure to put off any seeking a simply relaxing experience. It also contains a large amount of full-frontal male nudity and explicit gay sex, which for certain groups may be uncomfortable viewing. For these particular people the film will annoy or offend, but for those with a broader palate there is a lot to appreciate in Eisenstein.
The filmmaking technique is fascinating. The multi-layered images provide an encyclopaedic view on the world of the film, for instance displaying photographs of the real people the film’s characters are based on. These not only provide extra information, but also energise the work with a sumptuous amount of information that the viewer must work to keep up with, and give scenes a distinct look of a triptych painting. The colour correction used provides Eisenstein with a broad range of looks from a deep murky rain sequence reminiscent of trench warfare to views of Guanajuato in vibrant colours emphasising the life to be found there. There is also a new technique, that I have not seen anywhere before of a distorted wide-angle view of computer-generated locations, and while this is less immediately successful, it is refreshingly unexpected, as many of the other visuals have been used by Greenaway in earlier films.
Another aspect Eisenstein brings that can be lacking in some of Greenaway’s work is an emotional human core. The story of the film revolves around the Soviet silent film director Sergei Eisenstein, and his visit to Mexico in which he has his first romance and sexual experiences. These ground the experimental technique in a distinctly recognisable story of a real, frightened human being concerned about his body, his lifestyle and his always approaching death. These themes are dealt with in many ways, sometimes serious and touching, at others comedic and hilarious. The acting anchors this mixed tone with a consistent heightened style, that while possibly off-putting at first, grows on the viewer, transforming the film into a piece highly entertaining in its non-realist theatricality.
The overall impression the film gives is of vibrance and vitality. It re-energises the history of film, hopefully re-engaging a new audience with Eisenstein’s work. It tells a story of new found love and sexuality, with the excitement this involves. And it tells these stories with a stylistic dynamism, rarely seen in the modern cinema. Some may dislike it, but it is difficult to fault Eisenstein’s energy and passion.