The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein stands in the passenger seat of a Mercedes as it drives around somewhere in central Mexico. His complexion is so pale and his shock of hair so massive that you imagine he’d be the first of this party you’d spot on its way into town. Given his immediate visual discrepancy—he also sports a white linen suit, as opposed to the generally darker garb of the others in the film—he seems a foreigner of certain, if mystical import, which is soon resolved in voiceover narration and a slideshow that enumerates his cultural accomplishments. Herewith the film’s medley of unusual visual tactics commences: superimposition, triptych photography, and interminable tracking shots, one of which will pivot fastidiously around a Doric column as though the film has become momentarily distracted by architecture.
Put simply, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a Peter Greenaway film, and another of the British expatriate’s biographical forays into art history. It concerns Eisenstein’s trip to Mexico in 1930, whereupon he had intended to render Mexico’s violent history in the same constructivist vernacular he had applied to the Russian Revolution in Battleship Potemkin, Strike, and October. The resultant film, ¡Que Viva Mexico!, was never formally completed, and Greenaway’s dramatization of its production operates only ostensibly as an exposé as to why.
This is due to Greenaway’s persistent tendencies as a formalist, which often supersede whatever his films are superficially about. Even his more experimental work is full of luscious, elongated slabs of cinema of the sort that satiate cinephiles more interested in aesthetics than thematics: A Zed and Two Noughts, from 1985, begins with a grotesque car accident shown in a rigidly picturesque composition for several moments, or Prospero’s Books, from 1991, which commences with a whopping tracking shot that outlasts the title credits. Both of these examples benefit immeasurably from Michael Nyman’s pulsing orchestration and Sacha Vierny’s cinematography; both ceased working with Greenaway in the 1990s.
Greenaway would later become increasingly—and to the critical consensus, tediously—peculiar. His weirdest films, from the 2000s, may be described as imaginative, CD-ROM-like flights of fancy (The Tulse Luper Suitcases in 2003 – 2004, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse in 2008). And yet, these have their roots in his early structuralist experiments, films that often seem like the work of someone with pronounced OCD (such as Drowning by Numbers, from 1988, in which the numbers 1–100 are seen in exact sequence as the film proceeds).
This is all to say that Greenaway is not a narrative filmmaker. He’s even dismissive of the notion of film as a potential narrative avenue, as he stated in a 1994 interview: “I would say there has been no cinema yet. Nobody has yet made a film. I think the best we can manage is a version of illustrated literature or recorded theater.” Greenaway’s idiosyncrasy garnered him with consistent international renown for much of the 1980s and 1990s, but interest in his work has waned since then. After 8 1/2 Women, in 1999, it would be nine years before another of his films would be distributed in the U.S. Rembrandt’s J’accuse arrived stateside in 2008, and it coincided with Greenaway’s burgeoning predilection for artists’ biographies, which includes films on Rembrandt (Nightwatching), Da Vinci (the art installation Leonardo’s Last Supper), and, here, Eisenstein—coincidentally, it seems, his first film on another filmmaker.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato is consistent with the others of this party, specifically Nightwatching, a dramatization of Rembrandt’s conception of The Nightwatch. Yet for all his formalist preoccupations, Greenaway is in both films less interested in the art than in the artist, centering upon the creators’s sexuality, political allegiances, and privilege. He is especially obsessed with how sexuality is constrained by violent, puritanical governments. To this end, Eisenstein in Guanajuato posits Eisenstein as a closeted homosexual who flees his oppressive home regime to a place in which his carnal interests may be more freely entertained. The film he goes there to make, seemingly for both Eisenstein and Greenaway, is an afterthought.
Greenaway seizes upon the more salacious anecdotes of Eisenstein’s visit to Mexico, specifically the story that he lost his virginity to another man. The film’s keystone scene captures the deflowering in question, and it’s assembled rigorously in flat compositions from the front, back, left, and right. It’s another in Greenaway’s voluminous inventory of barefaced sex scenes that are alternately oppressive, as when Helen Mirren and Alan Howard must retreat to the lavatory in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover for their lovemaking, or violent, as when Ralph Fiennes is gored to death by a bull after he lays with Julia Ormond in The Baby of Mâcon. But these scenes are seldom as vulnerable—or tender—as the one here. Once consummated, his newfound lover places a miniature Mexican flag between Eisenstein’s buttocks in an affectionate gesture that additionally explicates the film’s subtext: that Eisenstein has so unyieldingly become imperialized by desire that his art has become compromised.
Eisenstein is, in turn, transformed by the experience and his pleasure is new for a Greenaway protagonist. (The performance is rendered enthusiastically by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck, who resembles Wallace Shawn in a Bozo-the-Clown wig.) Amidst all the perverts and crooks and puerile aristocrats that populate Greenaway’s films, Eisenstein is unique because his actions do not result in punishment, exile, boredom, or death—at least his punishment, in returning to Moscow on the order of Stalin, is unseen in the film. And yet, the film is ultimately questionable in staging these actions: the authenticity of this deflowering, although generally believed to be factual, is speculative. But it is a speculation Greenaway freely indulges in, and the result is one of his warmest and most playful films.