SFF 2015: Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Evolving like some erotic fevered animal for words, Peter Greenaway’s latest masterpiece sees him devote screen time to his great idol Sergei Eisenstein, a man be believes set a benchmark for cinema that has never been equalled. Here, with the typically heated creative approach, Greenaway revolves almost an entire film around a bed, constructed on a set that provides for multiple vantage points and has his own Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) perpetually waxing lyrical about sex and death, as a new found Mexican lover pours olive oil down his back and mounts him with an enormous Hispanic erection. Unapologetically Saussurean, everything is a sign, symbol and magnifier of the three great pillars of life (sex, death and birth) and the world of cinema and painting are, as with all Greenaway films, perfectly fused.

There is no doubt about it: Peter Greenaway is an acquired taste. You have to be of the continent, philosophically speaking, for a start, and willing to indulge in the unfashionable world of structural linguistics to which Greenaway adheres and from which he refuses to turn away. For any reservedly arthouse filmmaker to work their way into the mainstream (or at least the margins of it) is astonishing, but particularly so in the case of Greenaway, whose artistic philosophy is so grounded in an aesthetic that is supposedly debunked by the analytic philosophers of the modern West and contemporary linguists. It’s this aesthetic commitment to the relationship between signs, symbols, words and the hyper-realised image that makes those of us who adore Greenaway so passionate about him, infuriating and confounding critics of structural linguistics perhaps too quick to dismiss what Lacanians and literary theorists can see.

And so Eisenstein in Guanajuato is more of the same, even more of more of the same in many ways, because Greenaway chooses to embody and place words in the mouth of his cinematic idol here, rather than sticking to historical accuracy. Greenaway is making something precise out of what is more likely to have been ambiguous, using the moment Eisenstein lost his anal virginity as a sign for the sunshine and warmth he reportedly experienced in Mexico while on his world tour. He’s plastered in time and space between his failed trip to the USA and his impending return to his Russian homeland, a trip bankrolled by Upton Sinclair and underwritten by Vladimir Lenin. While in Mexico, Eisenstein shoots 250 miles of film in preparation for his movie Que Viva Mexico but is soon derailed by the carnal pleasures of his guide, the cultured and handsome academic Canedo.

However, part of the splendid and cheeky delight of Eisenstein in Guanajuato is the combination of fact and fiction, each not only interlaced with the other, but woven with an adherence to the shifts between diachronic and synchronic analysis and the blurring of fact and fiction. Greenaway achieves this through clever shifts between colour and black-and-white, alongside spilt screen images depicting real faces of his protagonists against the actors portraying those people. The implication is real, truth, and yet there is no way anyone could have known what went on between Eisenstein and Canedo in that bedroom. As if all this isn’t enough, Greenaway actually distorts some facts in order to portray a man unknown to those who might have been with him at the time. Greenaway’s message is clear regarding the power of the narrative, the symbol, the way that films can evoke a particular history separate from any sort of perceived facts, the relationship between the sign and the signified, and the connection between literature and the art formed image.

However, there is plenty to enjoy outside of the structuralism some would call propaganda (an accusation Eisenstein would be familiar with), through the light playful fun of Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Bäck’s joyous performance and the sumptuous beauty of Greenaway the painter’s divine film canvas. There are many very funny penis shots, up close and personal, as well as some patented Greenaway scenes such as flowing single-shot camera effect combined with an a historical narrative. He is, surely, one of the greatest filmmakers alive, no matter how you feel about his philosophical politics and because of his precise choice of subject and his breathtaking representation of his beliefs, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a stand out in his personal oeuvre.

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