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

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution