Dir/scr: Peter Greenaway. Netherlands-Mexico-Finland-Belgium. 2015. 105mins

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Think of it as ‘Eisenstein in Love’. Peter Greenaway’s latest post-modern cinematic divertissement focuses on the Russian director’s extensively-documented homosexuality, and makes a meal of the far less certain rumour that he had an affair with a young local guide while in Mexico shooting the ill-fated historic and social epic Que Viva Mexico!

There’s no denying the pathos of the film’s central character, a brittle, childlike artist who seems to lose his cultural bearings in this exotic setting.

Alas, despite a bravely revealing performance by Finnish actor Elmer Back as the cantankerous Russian auteur, the result is a wearying parade of exposition couched in interminable lines of dialogue, split-screen triptychs, artsy CGI trickery, and dutiful rolling out of Mexican clichés from sombrero-wearing bandits to Day of the Dead masks. Sure, there’s a strong element of arch playfulness in the exercise, but that doesn’t make the end result any less tiresome. In Eisenstein In Guanajuato, Greenaway is good at making us look, but not at making us care.

Produced with the help of a raft of Euro backers, Greenaway’s latest will attract notice for one painfully graphic anal sex scene and the supposedly controversial portrayal of one of world cinema’s most revered auteurs – though the shock-factor really only applies in Russia, where Eisenstein is still a national treasure, and where in the current political climate, it seems unlikely that the film will be shown in any form. Elsewhere, Guanajuato does not look destined to top, or perhaps even equal, the modest arthouse runs of the British director’s two recent ‘Dutch Masters’ films, Nightwatching and Goltzius & the Pelican Company.

Covering just ten days towards the end of the 14-month Mexican sojourn of the Russian director between December 1930 and February 1932, after a Hollywood project he was developing with Paramount fell through due to US political opposition, the film is set entirely in and around the Mexican town of Guanajuato, famous for its cemetery mummies and extensive system of covered lanes.

Hair standing on end (as it did in real life) as if he has been plugged into the mains, Back’s Eisenstein is an eccentric white-suited maverick, initially breezily dominating out of sheer volubility Palomino Canedo (Alberti), the dapper Mexican teacher of comparative religion who has been assigned to him as a guide. But later it will be Canedo who takes the upper hand when he responds to the 33-year-old Eisenstein’s timid, confused advances by taking his virginity, from behind, with no little force and vigour.

With voice-over narration confined to brief bookend segments at the beginning and end, it’s up Eisenstein himself to deliver the lectures that, in Greenaway’s recent oeuvre, tend to take the place of realistic dialogue. The problem of what to have the other characters do in the meantime is solved some of the time by splicing in extracts from works like Battleship Potemkin or Strike!, or confining the action to the middle of three windows and using the other two to flash up photos of Chaplin, James Joyce and the dozens of others Eisenstein will namecheck in the course of the film. Apart from one brief scene, we never see Eisenstein actually directing anything, though, as is made clear in a scene where his American backers descend on the Belle Epoque hotel where much of the action takes place, he shot something like fifty hours of footage while in Mexico.

There’s no denying the pathos of the film’s central character, a brittle, childlike artist who seems to lose his cultural bearings in this exotic setting – its otherness played up by the obtrusive digital colour enhancement of certain backdrops, as in an old tinted postcard. And when he’s engaging in pure cinematic installation art, with no tiring need to create drama or develop characters  – as in a scene supposedly set in the Museum of the Dead – Greenaway is on solid ground. But by the end, after the post-modern, meta-cinematic fireworks, we’re little the wiser about why the British director felt the need to dramatise what is little more than a footnote in the history of Russian cinema.

Production companies: Submarine, Fu Works Production, Paloma Negra Films

Co-production: Edith Film, Potemkino, Mollywood

International sales: Films Boutique, contact@filmsboutique.com

Producers: Bruno Felix, Femke Wolting, San Fu Maltha, Christina Velasco

Cinematography: Reinier van Brummelen

Editor: Elmer Leupen

Production designer: Ana Solares

Main cast: Elmer Back, Luis Alberti, Rasmus Slatis, Jakob Ohrman, Maya Zapata, Lisa Owen, Stelio Savante