The following article was published in N-SPHERE July 2010 issue.


For those with a sweet tooth for cine-narcotics Peter Greenaway’s films are a worthwhile feast. While ignoring traditional narratives, they maintain its solid structure, while often visually stunning, they refuse to share the same ground with directors such as Sokurov, Tarkovsky or others alike. Greenaway’s films are not lyrical, they are more didactic, and yet there is a sense of freedom and outlandishness that prevents them from being dull.

Drowning by numbers is a good example in this sense. The story revolves around three women: grandmother, mother and daughter, having the same name and apparently the same amusing habit of drowning their husbands.

The film opens with a typical Greenaway scene: that of a little girl in a huge hoop skirt skips rope in front of a country house, illuminated by constantly shifting lights, counting the stars by name. After reaching 100 she stops claiming that “one hundred is enough. Once you’ve counted to one hundred, all the other hundreds are the same”

This scene sets the film’s tone and gives the viewer a clue of what he’s about to see. The film involves repeating drowning, and since its tone is not a dramatic one, one may assume black–comedy and indeed the overall manner seems to fit the profile, but Greenaway is not interested in that particular aspect very much either. By starting the movie like that, by throwing inside different kinds of obscure games, he invites the viewer to play. And it is the only way the whole structure makes sense. It is a game. There is no dramatic tension, and even if the comedy may have its target, it does not go as far as aimed. It is present, because games are supposed to be funny.

Throughout the film we see… numbers, nearly everything is numbered. Again it gives an interactive feel to the whole material because after you see five scenes which have a number hidden somewhere, you may become worried when you don’t find it.

Another aspect is the film’s setting. It is not the–right–in–your–face outlandishness you see in nearly every SF film with fading surrealist stains, it looks real, it looks possible, and yet it gives you a pronounced eerie sensation.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the film is very rich both in visuals and substance, like many of Greenaway’s films are. There is no way one can cover that in a review. There is no point: it should be the viewer’s delight of unmasking symbols, and following tracks.

Another aspect is the approach towards sex which is a distant one: they’re not scandalous events, they are not met with a dramatic look; instead, they are met in a casual manner, just like any other mundane event is.

To some people, this film may be very difficult to penetrate, due to its outlandish approach towards a not–so–outlandish subject of matter, some people may question its plausibility, but games aren’t always plausible in the mundane context, they follow their own logic, just like this film does. One must bear in mind that Greenaway was trained as a painter; thus his movies should be evaluated likewise. What we have here is a moving painting, one that illustrates a game. And, as in many paintings, we have patterns: visual ones, verbal ones and so forth.

In games there are no ultimate consequences, so the film doesn’t need a dramatic tone.

All in all, if you have encountered Greenaway’s earlier works (or not necessarily earlier) and if you have liked them, this one deserves a shot (at least); or if you like English humor, filled with great visuals, riddles and games (nevermind the plot) this call may be for you as well.

Till the next transmission, pleasant (out)numbering.

Movie still: Drowning By Numbers. 1988.

by Shade

Full article here.