Adult Movies III

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Film Review by Dean Duncan May 2, 2014

Trot out the adjectives, visually speaking.  This is an utterly gorgeous, luminous film, not just painterly, but really successfully and multiply painterly. Frames, perpendiculars, exquisite balance giving way to different exquisite balances. Props and costumes seem so apt, so familiar and lived in/with. As per usual with Greenaway, these visual clarities come into conflict with narrative and thematic complexity. It’s a compelling combination, and a valid one.

On the other hand, as per usual with writer-director Peter Greenaway, it’s all kind of unpleasant.  Make that very unpleasant.  Some of that unpleasantness is, you might say, justified; Nightwatching intelligently and perceptively considers power and its abuses, and it is a fact that abusive power behaves badly.  The detailing of this oppression, personal and political, isn’t likely to be very pretty.

Laughton, in the Kordas' version, 1936

Laughton, in the Kordas’ version, 1936

Continuing within the present category of adult movies, and the question of when purposeful unpleasantness might cross over the line, we have on the other hand our protagonist.  Martin Freeman, as Rembrandt, is a revelation.  There is a Rabelasian component to what he and Greenaway contrive here, an earthiness/bawdiness that seems at once really well-researched/historically plausible, and really humanly accurate.  After all, the muck of medieval subsistence is still not so terribly far in the past.  After all, the organism is the organism.

Unfortunately, this Rabelasian component is also—on the side of our apparent good guy, mind you—the source of most of the film’s aforementioned unpleasantness.  And kind-of-crass also, further, deepens into the seeming point of the entire exercise.  Rembrandt’s efforts come more or less to naught, the which conclusion—remember, the writer/director is telling this particular story for a reason—contains the message of the movie.  Greenaway gives us a practically Buñuelian vision of human perfidy.  But was Luis Buñuel, as dire as he could often be, so set on the futility of it all?  Nightwatching is more than just discouraged and disappointed.  Misanthropy is one thing.  Vicious misanthropy might go a bit too far.

And yet.  The conclusion of the film, in which that foreign gentleman steps out of the frame, enumerates the many facets of Rembrandt’s failure, and then concludes that he was nevertheless in the right, has considerable, undiluted power.  Near the end of Shakespeare’s Henry V Prince Hal isn’t sure who won.  Are we ever?  At the very end of Henry V, not too soon after the historical battle, that stirring victory all falls apart.  Just maybe, after all its mucky disavowal, the reverse is true in this film.  That conclusion comes to us as being quite thrilling, after all the dispiriting that went before.