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No sex please, we’re Russian?

Questions over theatrical release for Peter Greenaway’s dizzying, dazzling—and sexually explicit—new film

Defecation, torture and rape: Greenaway’s latest work, based on the Dutch printmaker Goltzius, is not for the faint-hearted

Peter Greenaway’s latest film—“Goltzius and the Pelican Company”, which has been shown at film festivals around the world—was scheduled to receive its first theatrical release this month, in Russia. However, the release has been delayed, for undisclosed reasons. Given the film’s explicit sexual scenes, copious use of sexual profanities, ambiguous observations on race and examination of the nature of religious moral hypocrisy, one can only assume that Russia’s current religious atmosphere and the country’s recently introduced, ill-defined legislation on swearing in journalism have left the film’s distributor a little wary. But it is expected to be released soon, and the director’s small but loyal fanbase should also ensure a DVD release in the near future. Intriguingly, one of two different versions seen by The Art Newspaper was between five and ten minutes shorter, suggesting that cuts are being made.

The central story concerns the Dutch printmaker and engraver Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), played by the actor and author Ramsey Nasr, who is also the Netherlands’ equivalent of poet laureate. Goltzius toured Germany and Italy in 1590 (before returning to Haarlem, where he lived until he died), and Greenaway extrapolates from this tour, imagining a company of artists and actors—the Pelican Company—travelling with Goltzius and stopping en route at the court of the Margrave of Alsace (played by F. Murray Abraham).

Goltzius strikes a deal with the Margrave: in exchange for the money to publish illustrated editions of the Old Testament and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the company will stage six performances demonstrating sexual taboos from the Old Testament, in tribute to the freedom of thought and speech to be found at the Margrave’s court. But the scandalous and explicit nature of these scenes, along with the machinations of the courtiers and clerics who witness them, and the Margrave’s monstrous ego (the opening scene has him taking his daily public defecation), lead to torture, rape and murder before Goltzius can finalise the deal.

Greenaway has previously predicted the death of cinema; in 2007, he told the audience at a South Korean film festival that “cinema’s death date was 31 September 1983, when the remote-control zapper was introduced to the living room”, that “Bill Viola is worth 10 Martin Scorseses” and that cinema “should not be a playground for Sharon Stone”. But this has not stopped him from continuing to make luscious, complicated and often harrowing works that demand much of the viewer and can leave all but the most studious of his adherents baffled.

His films are layered in meaning and in the use of imagery (including animation, direct-to-camera speeches and art reproductions).

Dizzying graphics and multi-layered imagery aside, Greenaway’s technique is perhaps at its most effective in a shot where the Margrave and Goltzius argue as the camera pulls back to show the industrial space in which the action is set, composed of overlapping images resembling a “joiner” photograph of the kind made famous by David Hockney in his 1980s “Cameraworks”.

That the film is as much about the nature of contemporary representation and patronage as it is about historiography is further illustrated by the early scene in which Goltzius negotiates his deal: the dialogue sounds very close to a dotcom whizzkid wheedling money from a hedge-fund “angel”. And although the dense script can sound a little stilted in the mouths of the English-speaking but largely European cast, Abraham as the Margrave rolls out his vowels like a sleek Ivy League benefactor giving a speech on founders’ day.

From “The Draughtsman’s Contract” and “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” to this film, Greenaway remains fascinated by what we will sacrifice to get what we want from the powerful. And from “A TV Dante” and “Prospero’s Books” to “Nightwatching”, his 2007 film on Rembrandt (“Goltzius and the Pelican Company” forms the second part of his “Dutch Masters” trilogy; the third will be on Hieronymus Bosch), his visual language is highly distinctive and constantly dazzling. “Goltzius…” fizzes with ideas both intriguing and outrageous. But despite all this, the film proves that two hours of Biblical sex can be simply exhausting.

The (explicit) trailer for Peter Greenaway’s “Goltzius and the Pelican Company” is on YouTube.

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