Dir: Peter Greenaway. UK-Neth-Sp-Lux-Hung-It-Ger-Russ. 2003. 126mins.
Peter Greenaway's new trilogy The Tulse Luper Suitcases is merely the central element in a sprawling archipelago of a multi-media body of work. The project will take in film, TV, books, the internet and no less than 92 DVDs, each devoted to one of the suitcases that adventurer-hero Luper fills on his travels. Greenaway's encyclopedic urge has often threatened to swallow the world: The Tulse Luper project takes this urge to new extremes, with a proposed flood of inter-linked material. This is Greenaway's answer to the Matrix /Animatrix initiative, and given the scope of his ambitions, he could well outdo (if not outsell) Hollywood. A radical reimagining of cinema's multiple possibilities, The Moab Story will be much discussed, but as a watching experience it is problematic. The film's theoretical challenge and cutting-edge technical qualities make it a festival must, and it will doubtless sell to adventurous distributors, but its hermetic nature may deter audiences from returning for the second and third parts.
The project revolves around the career of adventurer, collector and polymath Luper, a figure who flitted in and out of Greenaway's early films. The story traces Luper from childhood in Wales in the 1920s, through his adventures in the Moab Desert, Utah, to imprisonment in Antwerp railway station in 1938. Hunting for vanished cities in Utah, Luper (Feild) falls foul of the crypto-fascist Mormon family Hockmeister, after glimpsing the vampish Passion (Dharnernas) in her bathtub. Luper is captured and submitted to various indignities, but hits it off erotically with Passion.
The clan then send him on a spying mission to Europe, where he gets entangled with a Belgian fascist party that operates under a swastika-like red fox logo. Before long, Luper is imprisoned again, this time under the auspices of a menacing stationmaster (Woutserse) and his dentist associate (Molla).
Greenaway relishes narrative and character but dismantles their conventions. Not only do his dramatis personae rejoice in bizarrely cartoonish names, but the film is peppered with clips from Greenaway's auditions: there could have been any number of possible Moab Stories with other casts. The saga, structured around 92, the atomic number of uranium, is about multiplicity, and The Moab Story is multiple with a vengeance. Throughout, Greenaway explodes the screen into a firework display of image, typography, texture and frames within frames, while fragmenting the soundtrack with multiple commentaries, echoing and cutting up actors' lines almost in hip-hop fashion. Such simultaneity has been attempted in cinema more, notably in Jean-Luc Godard's Historie Du Cinema, but never so exhaustively.
Greenaway clearly aspires to do for cinema what James Joyce did for the novel, yet The Moab Story resembles less Ulysses than Finnegans Wake. Often the bombardment of information is too much to absorb, let alone interpret. The most convincing section is the opening evocation of Luper's childhood, a quasi-operatic sequence shot on a flagrantly artificial studio set. Throughout the film, there are many equally inspired pleasures: a desert scene flaring into the lurid colours of a Maxfield Parrish illustration, or inserts of clips from Greenaway's earlier films, now ascribed to Luper himself. There are countless winks at the histories of the arts, but much of the humour feels laboured and pedantic.
For the most part it is exhausting to watch, and Greenaway over-estimates the skills and stamina of even the most sophisticated audiences, with the often-cacophonous sound mix meaning dialogue that is hard to follow. Even given Greenaway's preference for non-naturalistic performance, some of the acting is stilted and never allows the characters to gel as anything more than bizarre puppets. The one performance that gives the film a human touch is Feild, a winningly candid boy-hero.
Instead the real star is editor Leupen, who is obliged to think in four dimensions. Greenaway has certainly raised the bar for a new kind of cinema, but whether many audiences will want - or even be able - to follow him on the journey is moot.
Prod cos: Kasander Film Co, ABS Production, DeLux Productions, Focus Film, GAM Film, A12 Film Studios, Net Entertainment
Int'l sales: Fortissimo
Exec prods: Carlo Dusi, Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J Werner
Prods: Kees Kasander
Cinematography: Reinier van Brummelen
Ed: Elmer Leupen
Prod des: Marton Agh, Billy Leliveld, Pirra, Bettina Schmidt, Davide Bassan
Music: Borut Krzisnik
Main cast: JJ Field, Raymond J Barry, Valentina Cervi, Carolina Dhavernas, Deborah Harry, Steven Mackintosh, Jordi Molla, Drew Mulligan, Nigel Terry, Kevin Tighe, Scott Williams, Jack Wouterse