Dir: Peter Greenaway, Netherlands-Canada-Poland-UK. 140mins.
Peter Greenaway takes The Night Watch - arguably Rembrandt's most famous painting, and certainly his most earnestly discussed and interpreted work - as the basis for a rambling, theatrical, frequently didactic study of a turning point in the Dutch painter's life. By turns both murder mystery, biopic and art-historical tract, Nightwatching is the British director's most commercial film for a long while, though it is still very much an arthouse prospect. Lushly shot in a series of widescreen tableaux, but without the split-screen trickery and digital smoke and mirrors that made the Tulse Luper films such a challenging, not to say confusing, experience, Greenaway's latest is a sort of Da Vinci Code for intellectuals.
Greenaway's Rembrandt is a miller's son made good, a man with talent but little refinement, a painter-for-hire whose comfortable position in Amsterdam society has not reduced his carnal appetites or colourful street language. Martin Freeman plays him as a sort of Cockney barrow-boy who's struck lucky, and whose earthy turns of phrase incude such gems as 'F*** off you f***ing queer fat Polish c***'.
The rooms of the painter's house in Amsterdam are presented like stage sets, with an exaggeratedly absent fourth wall and raking theatrical lighting - taking a cue from Rembrandt's own group portraits in this period, which introduced dramatic dynamism into a genre dominated up to then by subjects standing in wooden, posed rows. And Rembrandt himself is presented as a director of still films as much as a painter: he strides around shouting out instructions to the costumed extras who pose for complex Biblical scenes, and conceives The Night Watch as a frozen moment of drama, as well as a coded j'accuse against the wealthy, corrupt patricians who formed part of Amsterdam's civil guard.
Most accounts of Rembrandt's life focus on the works, but here it's the painter's domestic life and his economic and social ties with his rich patrons that interest the director, who riffs enthusiastically on the scanty historical evidence. We see the three successive women that Rembrandt is known to have been involved with: first his wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle), a girl from a good family who the painter married as a business proposition but who he seems genuinely to have loved; then the two servants he took up with after Saskia's death - sensuous, vulgar Geertje (Jodhi May) and young, modest Hendrickje (Emily Holmes).
And we are fed reams of expositional information about Dutch history, religion, the way paintings were costed by full- or half-length figure, Rembrandt's family background, the jealousies that supposedly divided the men in the civil guard portrait, and the symbolic clues that, in Greenaway's view (and it's one shared by few serious art historians) were planted by the artist in The Night Watch. It all comes on like a structuralist art history tract, filtered through the paranoid mindset of a Phillip K Dick character, but delivered in wordy Shakespearian style by men in breeches.
Oddly, though, for all Greenaway's transparent use of filmed drama as a vehicle for a kooky theory, the film is at its best when it is in this faintly sardonic teacherly mode, and at its least convincing when it tries to get emotional - as in a hoky subplot involving Marieke (Nathalie Press), a sexually-abused orphan who wanders the rooftops like a Wenders angel.
The film also demonstrates Greenaway's operatic instinct for matching image and sound: Wlodek Pawlik's neo-Baroque soundtrack music hits just the right note of jaunty melancholia, at times echoing Michael Nyman's celebrated score for The Draughtsman's Contract.
Written and directed by
The Kasander Film Company
No Equal Entertainment Inc
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Reinier van Brummelen