To See How Many There Are
Peter Greenaway has had such a willy-nilly career over the last few decades that it’s easy to forget how amazingly potent and productive he was at the height of his powers. After years of making hypnotic short films throughout the ’70s, he began with The Falls in 1980 and, until he went into a tailspin with 8 1/2 Minutes in 1999 and wandered into the wilderness of performance art, television, and video remixes, made nine remarkable films over the space of sixteen years. While the gorgeous and gory The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is widely considered his masterpiece, I’ve always felt that the movie that immediately preceded it — 1988’s Drowning By Numbers, long unavailable in the United States due to the usual bewildering copyright issues — is not only the apotheosis of his uniquely beautiful visual style, but also his most accessible and straightforward narrative effort, while still maintaining all of his structural genius and compositional brilliance.
The plot of Drowning By Numbers is simple, if abstract: three generations of women in a British seaside town, all of whom are named Cissie Colpitts, are trapped in bad relationships. The elder Cissie, played with dignified comic grace by the great Joan Plowright, has lived for over 20 years with the drunken, unfaithful lout Jake, who belittles her and carries on with village girls right in front of her. Her daughter Cissie — the cool and charming Juliet Stevenson in her film debut — is married to wealthy and successful businessman Hardy, who gives her a beautiful beachfront home but is cruel to her and ignores her need for attention. And the youngest Cissie, a playfully gorgeous and callow Joely Richardson, seems happy enough with her handsome layabout Bellamy, but they marry in haste and she repents immediately. One by one, each of them drowns their husband, and with the complicity of the eccentric local coroner Madgett (an excellent Bernard Hill), whose favors they secure with the promise of sexual favors, they attempt to escape the vengeance of a growing mob of relatives.
But, of course, this being a Peter Greenaway film, the plot is probably the least important part of the movie. Not that it isn’t very enjoyable — the plight of poor Madgett, who realizes too late that he’s being used, and that his own bad faith as a suitor will eventually buy him the same fate as the other victims, makes for his most relatable and comprehensible narrative, almost noir-like in its clever interpretations of the self-doomed protagonist/collaborator and the femme fatale — or that it doesn’t have lots of great dialogue. In fact, it’s probably his most clever and funny script, with lots of engaging moments and an enjoyably clever structure (ultimately borrowed from the realm of fairy tales, like so much of his work — in this case, the story of the Billy Goats Gruff). The characters are extremely well-drawn; the Colpitts are all charming though deadly and skillfully acted, and their crimes are mitigated not only by the boorish behavior of their men, but also the sheer power of their feminine and familial camaraderie. Madgett, so deftly portrayed by Hill, is clever and confident, which makes him likable but also leads him to his own soggy fate. And his son, the obsessive game-player and cataloguer Smut, is perfectly drawn by the young Bryan Pringle as beloved by all, but like his father, a victim of his own fascinations, and it is arguably his end that it is the greatest tragedy of fate.
But it is still not so much what is shown on screen that makes Drowning By Numbers great as it is the way it is shown. Even more so than most of his movies, Greenaway outdoes himself with the compositions here: while the color and style and set design of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover were breathtaking, it was filmed largely on a soundstage, where every piece could be intricately arranged. Drowning By Numbers takes place mostly out of doors, in open spaces, wild places, and natural terrain, which makes the fact that it is equally controlled and composed even more astounding. This is one of his most painterly films, with a handful of actual paintings (including Mantegna’s “Lamentations Over a Dead Christ” and, appropriately, Breugel’s “Children’s Games”) and many more sets and shots foregrounding natural decay and the alteration of life in the same way the story tells tales of death and change. It’s not full of lively, absurdist surrealism like a Fellini film: it’s a homely, almost naturalist surrealism full of squat and aging naked bodies and animals who have died of misadventure. So many shots are instantly memorable it’s hard to count them all: a little girl dressed in overblown Gothic clothes skips rope, chanting the names of the stars, backlit by streetlights; a gang of vengeful marathon runners trudge grimly along the beach, covered in clear plastic tarps to keep the rain off of them; a boy leaping over and over again from the roof of a barn, photographing himself as he falls.
Greenaway’s structuralist tendencies are as pronounced here as they are in perhaps anything he ever did outside of The Falls; thematic echoes and circular storytelling is constantly framed. Some of it is front and center, in the way the story divides, like its protagonists, into three parts reverberating against one another in harmony and in opposition; other parts are subtle, like the counting forward from 1 to 100 of numbers barely glimpsed in the scenes. Others are entirely invisible, as when Greenaway tells us that there are a hundred objects in young Smut’s room; even if it’s not true, even if we merely take his word for it, it seems right, and if anyone could ensure such a meaningless but thematically powerful element really was included, it would be Greenaway. It’s also one of the most Oulipo-esque movies ever made, with apparently arbitrary constraints forever adding to the unreal srangeness of the story, as in the constant reference to playing of games and the way the events of the story echo the rules of those games. And, if you’re one of those people who thinks theory — and Drowning By Numbers is as soaked in theory as it is logged with water — is too drily intellectual, it’s also one of the sexiest movies he, or anyone else for that matter, ever made. It even makes Madgett’s constant frustration seem deeply hot. It’s the oddest of mainstream movies, the most natural of experimental films, and as good a reason as any to invest in an all-region DVD player.