Dir/scr: Peter Greenaway. Neth. 2008. 86mins.
Peter Greenaway returns to Rembrandt’s celebrated The Night Watch once again in the unexpectedly-engrossing docu-drama Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, in which the director himself, on camera throughout in one of his beloved image boxes, recounts the story behind the painting and poses his theories - some 31 of them - on it and a few other things to boot. Hearing the director talk about his films has always been just as (and sometimes more) fascinating as anything on screen, and here he is the learned, argumentative, dominant teacher figure. It’s continuously fascinating, even if Rembrandt’sJ’Accuse’s commercial future is an open book.
Rembrandt’s J’Accuse is obviously a natural teaching tool for art students and anybody interested in the visual image - although Greenaway, prickly as ever, dismisses ‘most people’ as being ‘visually illiterate’, blaming a ‘text-based culture’ for an ‘impoverished cinema’. The film works as an art installation, a museum companion piece, a TV documentary - almost anything but a theatrical release although this could possibly work in major urban markets.
With a sweeping shot of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, where the painting lives, at night, overlaid with moving police cars and of course written text and inset image boxes, Greenaway appears on screen to present his case. There has been a murder, he says, and The Night Watch is Rembrandt’s J’Accuse - if we examine the painting, we will find the killer, or killers.
This is territory Greenaway has already visited in the purely dramatic Nightwatching, to which this is a companion piece. It returns the same cast to carefully-lit and designed soundstage settings reminiscent of the Dutch 17th century art which has always been Greenaway’s inspiration. In dramatic interludes, they bring the painting to life and illustrate Greenaway’s arguments.
He’s precise about his numbers (‘the fourth most celebrated painting in the western world’, examining ‘30 of the 50’ theories behind it ‘plus one which explains everything’, the 34 characters in The Night Watch, etc). This is the man, after all, who directed Drowning By Numbers and The Draughtsman’s Contract and in a neat way, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse combines all of Greenaway’s cinematic and artistic preoccupations.
In telling the tale of the Dutch militia and the shooting death of Piers Hasselburg which inspired Rembrandt’s painting, Greenaway less convincingly manages to bring murdered Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn and film-maker Theo Van Gogh into the argument, and a shot which dwells on Fortuyn’s dead body on an Amsterdam street seems unnecessary. It’s also clear that Greenaway’s theories are very much his own, and not all of them would stand up in a traditional art class. That’s part of the fun of Rembrandt’s J’Accuse though: it’s a very unique trip through art history for those who brave the journey.
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Reiner Van Brummelen