Dir: Peter Greenaway Neth-Sp-Lux-Hung-It-Ger-Russ. 2004. 120mins.
Part two of the movie arm of Peter Greenaway's gloriously megalomaniac multimedia project The Tulse Luper Suitcases is, if anything, even more ravishingly weird and hermetic than Part I: The Moab Story, which screened at Cannes last year (the second part enjoyed at special screening at Berlin). For the uninitiated, The Tulse Luper Suitcases is a 360-degree multimedia project based on 92 suitcases collected by 20th-century Everyman (and Greenaway alter ego) Tulse Luper between 1928 - when Uranium was discovered - and 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Like James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake, Greenaway seems to want to fit all of art, language and history into one work; unlike Joyce, he is doing it in no less than five different media: cinema, TV, Internet, recordable optical disc (DVD and/or CD-Rom), and the printed word.
In the circumstances, dwelling on the theatrical prospects of the second of the three two-hour films due to emerge from the encyclopaedia that is Greenaway's imagination (which is fuelled, as always, by his faithful and long-suffering producer-patron Kees Kassander) seems beside the point. Tulse Luper I has so far only been released in Italy - the majority partner among the slew of co-production territories - where it was confined to a handful of big city screens and failed to make the Top 10 there.
Before writing it off, though, it's worth defining one's terms: if the Greenaway project is classified as contemporary art rather than cinema - like that other deranged attempt to set down a personal Creation myth on film, US artist Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle - then the interest it has generated among film buffs, artheads and Greenaway groupies the world round pushes it into the major league. Of course, this doesn't address the problem of how the producers are going to make their money back. The answer, no doubt, is somewhere in one of those suitcases.
The Tulse Luper films are the cinematic equivalent of Bloomberg TV. Instead of a share price ticker, rolling news, the talking head in the studio and an inset showing the latest terrorist attack, we get morse code symbols running across the screen, characters appearing in inset windows, superimposed extracts from the letters Luper writes from his various places of confinement, numbered and captioned suitcases and characters, outtakes from film classics (The Wizard of Oz, Dreyer's Joan of Arc), outtakes from Greenaway's own films, which are given Luperine antecedents like The Draughtsman's Conflict - an opera written by Luper while under the authoritarian sway of Madame Moitessier (Isabella Rossellini) in the seaside resort of Dinard in 1941. Moitessier has her own genesis in a portrait painted by Ingres in 1841, the subject of an art history disquisition which morphs into a reflection on the way the artist can cheat time, or be cheated by time. Traditional narrative hooks - like dramatic tension - are replaced by stimulating but frustratingly open-ended mindgames.
There are times when it is impossible to keep track of what is going on, either in the plot or in the intellectual substratum that it rests on: at which point we let the ultra-stylish visual and musical surface wash over us like a screensaver. The feeling that we are watching a giant computer screen is enhanced by the high definition cinematography, ultra-sharp but lacking the depth of celluloid (hopefully, Tulse Luper will only be viewed in cinemas with HD projection technology).
Traditional industry divisions of labour get blurred on a film like this: cinematographer Reinier van Brummelen's job continued in the editing room of Italian HD studio Grande Mela, where he worked with Greenaway and editors Elmer Leupen and Chris Wyatt to get the final look just right.
Actors are no more than pawns in this mad visual-intellectual chess game, and while some (Rossellini, Potente) appear slightly overwhelmed by the oddness of it all, others (Celia Imre, Ronald Pickup) carve out a space for themselves with some fine character turns. With his Old Etonian, rowing-eights good looks, JJ Field makes a good, passive Everyman, confused but eternally optimistic, not unlike the Tintin character who flashes briefly across the screen of the Arc-en-Ciel cinema where Luper works in the central, Strasbourg-set scenes of Part 2.
The third and final part of Tulse Luper will be presented at Venice in the first week of September, allowing audiences the chance to sit through the whole seven-hour experience in one go, Lord Of The Rings-style.
Production co: Kasander Film Company
Co-production cos: ABS Producction (Sp), Delux Productions (Lux), 12A Film Studios (Russ), NET Entertainment (Ger), Focus Film (Hung), GAM Film (It)
International sales: Fortissimo Film Sales
Producer: Kees Kasander
Co-prods: Eva Baro, Jimmy de Brabant, Alexander Mikhaylov, Klaus Volkenborn, Sandor Soeth, Aron Sipos, Gherardo Pagliei
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Cinematography: Reinier Van Brummelen
Production design: Billy Leliveld
Editor: Elmer Leupen, Chris Wyatt
Music: Borut Krzisnik
Main cast: JJ Field, Raymond J Barry, Valentina Cervi, Ornella Muti, Anna Galiena, Franka Potente, Isabella Rosellini, Celia Imre, Ronald Pickup