January 2, 2017


Peter Greenaway (1942-) b. Newport, Gwent, Wales.

Peter Greenaway

Expect a film by Peter Greenaway to both offend and impress you. You could equally be entering Greenaway’s own private art gallery or the jaws of hell. The visual detail in Greenaway’s work is amazing, be it after the style of Breughel or Bosch, although his narratives are spare and often elliptical. He has flirted with mainstream acceptance more than that other master of painterly, if often repellent images on film, Derek Jarman, but has always veered away again to the fringes of homo-erotic fantasy. Greenaway’s menacing cameras prowl past visceral images revealing a fascination with, as well as the body and its functions, death and betrayal and their relation to such disparate things as food, sex, crime and architecture. The son of an ornithologist, Greenaway had begun his career appropriately as a painter, but it was not long before he was working as a film editor and making a string of enigmatic shorts, leading to his first feature in 1980. The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) opened doors for him, and, although regarded as too puzzling in some quarters, was a conspicuous arthouse success that also reached the edges of a more general audience. He had less success over the next few years until Drowning by Numbers (1988) and, most notably, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and her Lover (1989) brought him back to the fore. Both are greatly aided by the colour images of Greenaway’s regular cinematographer Sacha Vierney. Drowning is almost a series of moving paintings that depict three women from the same family who all drown their husbands. As usual, artificiality reigns, and Greenaway lingers too long in the telling of the tale, but the film remains fascinating throughout. And the presence of ‘name’ stars undoubtedly enabled both it and The Cook to prove more accessible to audiences on either side of the Atlantic. The latter was undoubtedly among the most stylish and the most disgusting of its year. Vulgarity is its keynote and no opportunity is missed to underline it, from the continuous sex and violence, to the crass opulence of the restaurant where revolting gangster Michael Gambon holds court. Greenaway has searched in vain for its equal since, his more recent pictures lacking the pictorial inspiration which a Greenaway film once guaranteed.

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