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The play’s the thing: Peter Greenaway’s Goltzius and the Pelican Company

Critics and audiences may have long given up on British painter-turned-director Peter Greenaway, but his sensuous, smart, arty films are asking questions few others would dare to contemplate.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company.
"It was meant to be an acted metaphor. It became a bloody reality": Goltzius and the Pelican Company.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company (18)
dir: Peter Greenaway

If one were called on to explain to a young cinemagoer now the position in the 1980s of the British painter-turned-director Peter Greenaway, it might be helpful to say that he combined the intellectual mischief of Slavoj Žižek, the formalist precision of Wes Anderson, the provocations of Lady Gaga and the commercial appeal of chlamydia.

His reputation was made in 1982 with his second feature, The Draughtsman’s Contract. So vital was it to have a take on this period puzzle that the Evening Standard ran a two-page feature canvassing opinion-makers on what the film might possibly mean. His 1985 follow-up, A Zed & Two Noughts, about zoologist twins whose wives perish in a car crash caused by a swan (no, really), held the record at one swanky London cinema for the most walkouts in a week – until it was beaten by his sumptuous and disgusting 1989 thriller The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Greenaway’s house style involved painterly, pedantically-detailed compositions, a creepily gliding camera and surging Michael Nyman scores. There was cannibalism, sexual degradation and, in one disturbing instance, an acting role for the comedian Jim Davidson.

Alan Parker, another British director from the period whose stock has plummeted, was so repulsed by Greenaway’s cinema that he promised to decamp to the US if he was allowed to go on working. Greenaway did continue making films – Goltzius and the Pelican Company is his 15th – but audiences stopped watching them.

He delivered his harrowing masterpiece, The Baby of Mâcon, in 1993 but critics decided they had reached peak Greenaway. That film depicts 17th-century actors crossing the line between performance and reality as they mount a morality play. The notorious sequence in which a woman is raped by 208 men at the behest of the Church prompted the Guardian to label it “one of the most misogynistic films of all time”. On the contrary, it is as admirable in its staging and control as it is unequivocal in its condemnation of religiously sanctioned abuse.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company revisits some of the ideas and iconography of that widely loathed picture, minus the 208 men. Once again, the action takes place before an on-screen audience that applauds the floor shows mounted for its delectation. We are in the court of the Margrave of Alsace (F Murray Abraham, best known for his role as Salieri in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus). The painter Hendrik Goltzius (played by the former Dutch poet laureate Ramsey Nasr) arrives in 1590 to seek funding for a printing press in order to produce an edition of the Old Testament brimming with candid illustrations. To sweeten the deal, Goltzius agrees for his company of workers to perform six biblical scenes for the Margrave exploring sexual taboos, from incest (Lot and his daughters) to paedophilia (Potiphar’s wife and Joseph). As in The Baby of Mâcon, life starts trespassing on to the stage. Woe betide the actor called upon to play John the Baptist.

Greenaway has likened the origins of printing to the beginnings of the internet, comparing the illusion of limitless sexual exploration promised in both cases. With its disquisitions on free speech, prompted by the violence doled out to the company’s playwright, Boethius (Giulio Berruti), the film is not short on examples of pertinence. Visually, Greenaway has always been prescient: long before we were all opening tabs within windows within panels within screens, he foresaw the aesthetic texture of the future with his 1991 film Prospero’s Books, in which Paintbox computer technology made possible overlapping text and images. We think of James Cameron or Pixar Animation Studios as being at the vanguard of CGI but Greenaway shouldn’t be Photoshopped out of that snapshot.

Text in the new film is layered on to bodies that shimmer with ripples of light from unseen water, while multiple images play out in compartmentalised boxes. Miniature lectures on the history of art bring the picture perilously close to PowerPoint territory at times. The sense of jeopardy in the action (not to mention equal-opportunities nudity) rescues it from the purely academic.

Audiences not won over previously by Greenaway are unlikely to undergo a conversion with Goltzius and the Pelican Company. I wonder, though, if the director’s experience of having been roundly rejected accounts for some of the rueful, new-found hurt discernible in his usually dogmatic voice. Near the end of the picture, Goltzius says mournfully of his production: “It was meant to be an acted metaphor. It became a bloody reality.” It can’t be a coincidence that Greenaway has returned to the play-within-a-film format of his most hated work to denounce the hypocrisy of those who claim to prize intellectual and artistic inquiry only to yank up the drawbridge when reality bites.