Back in the mid-eighties Alan Parker used Peter Greenaway’s films as an example of the British film industry’s failure to come up with commercially viable product, opting for self-indulgent artiness instead. I can’t remember what Greenaway’s response – if any – was but (if we can believe that he has spent the past twenty years brooding upon the question) this could well be it.
Set in 1590, Goltzius concerns a company of printers/actors who, eager to secure funding for a printing press from the Margrave of Alsace (F. Murray Abraham) stage a series of Biblical tableaux concentrating on the saucier side of the good book. The stage is set for a learned treatise on the relation between art and commerce that simultaneously confirms and denies Greenaway’s reputation for arty inaccessibility. Yes it’s a kind of lecture, but one with lots of slides. And practical demonstrations of sex and violence. It even has subtitles despite being in (artfully mispronounced) English.
Through technical trickery the action takes place in an endlessly malleable space that transcends the merely theatrical. And rather a lot happens, as the Mardrake falls for one of the actresses and enters the production, and various characters, falling foul of him, start to lose body parts – and illusion and reality become increasingly confused.
As do any distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture – indeed, the addresses to camera in distorted English by Goltzius, the troupe’s leader (Ramsey Nasr) irresistibly recall Rene in Allo Allo, which, readers may recall, also tackled the thorny topic of sex in religious art with its ‘fallen Madonna with the big boobies’.
What this film doesn’t do is innuendo – however indirect the approach, it’s all about the real thing: sex, blood, excrement. It even begins with the Margrave taking a shit in the library, a constitutional obligation to prove that he is, after all, an ordinary mortal. As is Greenaway, of course – not just some elitist Prospero presiding over a rarefied realm of ideas. I’d love to see him revive the Carry On franchise, and with Golzius, I feel I am that bit closer to seeing my dream realised.