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 not unusual that a British production takes so long to reach 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 iconic Russian helmer Sergei Eisenstein. The director who invented montage travelled to Mexico in 1931 in order to shoot a new film, 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 denouncing him 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 movie. The frenetic opening music is similar to the opening of A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), the overt sexuality and 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 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 bold and inventive, with a wide angle slowly morphing into a medium shot, and abundant dizzying movements, a little bit like an illustration from MC Escher. The colours are tropical, plush and vibrant, while mirrors and profuse lighting render the indoors bright and spacious. There is a very creepy and beautiful scene where Eisenstein walks among cased mummies (they are the same ones as in the opening of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, 1979). Such creative ingeniousness is a fitting tribute to Eisenstein’s groundbreaking montage style.
The film, however, 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. Bäck’s character claims: “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.
The movie is not too concerned about historicity and authenticity. Greenaway displays the photographs upon which the film is based. There is little doubt that much of the rest was imagined by the British filmmaker. He 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: