Dir. Peter Greenaway
Premiered at Venice September 6, 2007
British-born director Peter Greenaway is a true visionary, a man whose influences reach beyond the confines of cinema to elevate middlebrow prestige films into forward-thinking art. One other hand, his fundamentalist approach has a tendency to baffle; a fearsome rebuke to the fanboy fallacy that understanding a filmmaker’s intent equates to appreciating the end product.
And yet, just by compelling me to write about him, he is succeeding. Greenaway has made a career not only of expanding the vocabulary of his chosen medium, but getting people to think critically about visual art in an uncaring, text-based civilization. At no time were these aims laid more bare than in 2006, when his adopted Netherlands invited him to make a film commemorating the 400th birthday of Dutch painter Rembrandt von Rijn (he fell behind schedule).
But if you were expecting a straightforward docudrama about the life of the artist, Greenaway’s patrons almost certainly weren’t. Instead, Greenaway posits a provocative fanfiction, a surreal and somewhat tacky conspiracy thriller.
After eighty years of war, the Dutch Republic’s independence has finally been recognized by Spain. Newly freed up and flowing with cash from a burgeoning colonial empire and stock market, the great Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is at the peak of his wealth and prestige even as his rather dark artistic style begins to fall out of fashion. Accordingly, the film is sumptuously minimal in its lighting (but not underlit, purveyors of grit take note).
But not all is well. Following complications from the birth of their son, Rembrandt’s wife (Eva Birthistle) is dying. He’s visited by a supposed angel (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), the daughter of his patron Rombout Kemp (Christopher Britton), who reveals that the man is running a child brothel out of an orphanage. And after being commissioned by the Amsterdam militia to paint a group portrait– what will later become known as The Night Watch– he discovers a conspiracy to murder within its ranks, and seeks to immortalize their crimes through clever hints within the painting.
Whatever he may say about expanding horizons as a director, Greenaway’s aversion to taking inspiration from other films isn’t total; Rembrandt’s own breaking of the fourth wall is reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, which was released at the time of this film’s development and itself pays homage to Greenaway’s own The Draughtsman’s Contract (about which more later). The similarities in overall concept to The Da Vinci Code are similarly telling, the foremost evidence of when the film was completed.
And Nightwatching is a difficult film. It’s just too much of everything to grab onto as a viewer: too unpleasant in its subject matter to bask in, to abstract to shock or enliven, too complicated to follow, and (though it tries) too spare and draggy to succeed in its mission to engage the audience with Rembrandt’s body of work. It’s almost exploitative.
How Did It Do?
I could find no information regarding Nightwatching’s financial fortunes, though it notably received no general release in the United States. It did however receive a 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with Trevor Johnston of TimeOut proclaiming it one of Greenaway’s best films.
Apparently unsatisfied with his presentation in the film, Greenaway returned to his pet conspiracy amusement the following year with the film essay Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, in which he lays out the plot more coherently than this movie ever could, if still failing to entertain.
Next Time: 12