“The screenplay never evolves into a cohesive format, to the point where the movie feels like a series of loose vignettes.”
by Ken Bakely
Peter Greenaway, a painter by trade, has said that he considers that medium to be “the supreme of all the arts”. Certainly his films reflect that, as the spatial composition of a Greenaway film is distinctive of a baroque artwork, likely characterized by bold, linear color palettes and symmetrical cinematography, with the action in a shot often stemming from the absolute center of the frame, and everything spiraling outward. His newest movie, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, is a further reflection of that mindset. Focusing on Russian auteur Sergei Eisenstein’s 1931 business-pleasure trip to the titular city in Central Mexico, when he shot the famously unfinished Que Viva México, Greenaway uses this point of development to dig into Eisenstein’s personal quirks, as portrayed by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck. He has brought one suit with him, blazingly white from collar to sock, which becomes a problem upon becoming dirtied – either through an angry cloud of dust in an archaic museum, or a sudden fit of vomiting and diarrhea after a long night of drinking. In both cases, he and his outfit are saved by a local guide, a tall, dark, and handsome man named Jorge Palomino (Luis Alberti). He is depicted as an eccentric and reserved yet mischievous man, and as British comic Jimmy Carr would put it, is so far deep in the closet that he’s having adventures in Narnia.
It just so happens that the timing of this excursion perfectly coincides with the fourteenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The birth of the Soviet Union is often referred to “ten days that shook the world”. Greenaway finds this an irony too delicious to keep at bay, and has his main character refer to the events within the 105 minute movie as “ten days that shook Eisenstein”, from the vibrant redefinition of his creative approach, to furious intimate realizations. Eisenstein in Guanajuato essentially uses its main character’s fame as a jumping-off point to a unique story. It is easy to suspect that the plot bears few similarities to what actually happened during the production of Que Viva México, and Greenaway is displaying a signature male character of his creation onto the screen, in a mold which allows for specific pontifications on art, history, and politics. There is a potential for greater ruminations on these subjects, and making even greater usage of the individual at the center of the story, but Greenaway throws away a lot of what could have been, instead crafting Eisenstein around the screenplay, instead of the other way around, disallowing opportunities for the character to grow and develop into a unique sketch.
A bigger problem is that the screenplay never evolves into a cohesive format, to the point where it feels like a series of loose vignettes. Consider Greenaway’s visual approach, which often consists of multiple replicating split screen angles and fantastical rear-projection imagery. While inspired, the results achieved accomplish little in the way of decreasing the narrative fragmentation which cripples the film. Bäck’s stringy, endlessly energetic performance as Eisenstein is something to be admired, with the actor’s lanky frame juxtaposed against his character’s trademark lightning-strike hair, but any possible subtexts which could have been threaded into a meaningful story are relegated to shoddy voiceover at best, like the ramifications of Eisenstein, relentlessly celebrated by the Soviet government, coming to terms with his non-heterosexuality whilst having to return to a home country which had recently brutally criminalized sodomy. Every positive about this film is mitigated in some way by the unkempt plotting, ending in a murky neutral zone, becoming an easily forgettable movie. I’ve had stronger opinions about tuna fish sandwiches.