This weekend Peter Greenaway’s latest flick Eisenstein in Guanajuato finally hit the cinemas in the UK. The film has already been shown in much of the world; it’s very strange – yet not unusual – that a British production takes so long to reach precisely its home market.
The eccentric London filmmaker has once again concocted a colourful, boisterous and imaginative film. Eisenstein in Guanajuato portrays the 10 days in Central Mexican state of Guanajuato that allegedly changed the life of the legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. The director who invented cinema montage travelled to Mexico in order to shoot a new film in 1931, but he was soon distracted by a gay love affair and other ironic twists of fate – such as unusually rainy weather and an unexpected letter from Stalin denounced the director as a deserter. As a result, the project entitled ¡Que Viva México! was never completed, and the director left the country earlier than he expected.
The aesthetics and idiosyncrasies of Peter Greenaway are conspicuous throughout the entire movie. The musically frenetic opening of the film is similar to the opening of A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), the overt sexuality and constant male nudity has traces of Pillow Book (1986), while the hammy acting and humour are not dissimilar to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). Even the rain is strangely reminiscent of Prospero’s Book (1991), and at one point he lists out dead people and the reason of their death, just like in his TV short Death in the Seine (1989).
Greenaway deftly combines classical music, energetic acting and innovative camera movements in order to create a film that is both intellectually-engaging and fun to watch. Finnish actor Elmer Bäck (seen above with the white suit and messy hair) delivers a charming performance of Eisenstein: he’s flamboyant, talkative and electrifying; his accent is delectable, while his body is ugly, yet peculiarly sexy and cuddly. Luis Alberti plays his lover Palomino Cañedo (pictured below on the left), who also has a wife and children (the actor also played the sexually ambiguous Modesto in the dirty Mexican film Carmin Tropical, made last year by Rigoberto Perezcano).
The camera moves are also energetic and creative, with a wide angle shot slowly morphing into a regular shot, and rotating distorted takes, which look like an illustration from MC Escher. The colours are tropical, plush and vibrant, while mirrors and profuse lighting make the indoors bright and spacious. There is a very creepy and beautiful scene where Eisenstein walks among cased mummies (they are in the same ones as in the opening of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, from 1979). Such creative ingeniousness is a fitting tribute to Eisenstein’s groundbreaking montage style.
The film, however, has very few Russian elements in it, and it might be hard for Russians to relate to it. While Bäck is very likable, he doesn’t seem very Russian at all. He doesn’t even utter a word in Russian throughout the movie and even speaks to his wife on the telephone in English. Peter Greenaway is well aware of this, with Bäck’s character even claiming: “I am a caricature, I cannot smoke fast, but I can talk fast”.
The overt homosexuality in the film is also problematic in Russia, a country that has recently embraced homophobia as a statement against the West, refusing thereby even their own homosexual figures (such as Eisenstein) and community. Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov recently described those who saw any homosexual hints in his profoundly homoerotic Father and Son (2003) as “perverts”. Russia is not prepared to discuss homosexuality, not even in artistic and subversive cinema practices.
Much of the film’s historicity and authenticity are also questionable. Greenaway shows the photo pictures on which he based the movie throughout the film, but there is little doubt that much of the rest was imagined by the London filmmaker. Of course this is not a major problem, as Greenaway imagination is brilliant and fascinating. In other words, the British director took Eisenstein’s “long protracted adventure leading to nowhere” and set it off in a brand new direction.
Eisenstein in Guanajato is out now in UK cinemas, or you can view at home it with BFI player. Watch the film trailer below: