Where to begin with Peter Greenaway

A beginner’s path into the playful labyrinths of one of Britain’s most celebrated arthouse directors, Peter Greenaway.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Why this might not seem so easy

Trained as a painter, Peter Greenaway is a true multimedia artist, whose huge output encompasses film, video and television, gallery installations, CD-ROMs and opera libretti. His instantly recognisable style sets immaculately composed images to a predetermined structure (alphabetical, numerical, pictorial, musical, chemical), with those images often featuring copious frontal nudity of both sexes. He once said that “cinema is far too rich and capable a medium to be left to the storyteller” and also expressed a “wish to be included in some way – maybe peripherally or vestigially – on the list of excellent pornographic writers”.

Avowedly European and peculiarly British, his work has often been divisive, but is always dazzlingly and defiantly his own. Those who knee-jerkily accuse him of being “pretentious” get the quizzical reply “pretending to what?” This is arthouse cinema with a vengeance, but is also unexpectedly accessible – throughout the febrile 1980s, a Peter Greenaway film was one of the safer British film investments.

He began making experimental films in the 1960s while working as a Central Office of Information (COI) editor. The films became more ambitious, culminating in the post-apocalyptic three-hour epic The Falls (1980), comprising 92 biographies of people whose names begin with ‘FALL’.  He seemed destined for the avant-garde fringes, but executive producer Peter Sainsbury helped him shape his 18th-century country-house mystery The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) not merely into a surprisingly gripping drama (given Greenaway’s views on conventional storytelling) but an unexpected box-office hit.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

For the next decade, Greenaway seemed near-ubiquitous, with high-profile films The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) paralleled with more experimental work that sought to define new forms of moving-image expression. But the overwhelmingly negative reception of The Baby of Mâcon (1993) caused many to break the habit of following his career, and the feature films became more sporadic, sometimes barely released. By then, however, his work was as likely to turn up in an art gallery or opera house as it was in a conventional cinema.

The best place to start – The Belly of an Architect 

Greenaway’s most accessible film is anomalous in that the usual intricate patterning plays second fiddle to Brian Dennehy’s towering, heartbreakingly human performance. Greenaway specifically wanted a larger-than-life personality, and even considered Marlon Brando.

The Belly of an Architect (1987)

But it’s still a Greenaway film. Set in Rome, it concerns a visiting American architect who’s overseeing an exhibition devoted to an 18th-century counterpart (the real-life Étienne-Louis Boullée) who, like him, was better known for grandiose plans than physical buildings. As his wife (Chloe Webb) gestates their child, he grows a cancer in his own belly, each taking nine months to reach the parallel stages of birth and death; a typically Greenawayesque conceit.

By 1987, his reputation was such that he was granted remarkable freedom to shoot inside major Rome landmarks normally off-limits to filmmakers, with the Piazza del Popolo looking so perfectly symmetrical that it seems as though Greenaway constructed it specifically for his film.

What to watch next 

Any random selection from The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), Drowning by Numbers (1988) and the baroque revenge melodrama The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) will swiftly establish how Greenaway made and cemented his reputation.

A Zed & Two Noughts (1985)

The second inaugurated one of film history’s most symbiotic creative partnerships when he first hired cinematographer Sacha Vierny, the visual maestro behind Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), one of Greenaway’s favourite films. For A Zed & Two Noughts, a characteristically bizarre tale of identical twins, snails, swans, missing limbs and time-lapse decay, Greenaway asked Vierny to come up with 26 distinct types of lighting, and the veteran Frenchman was happy to oblige. Greenaway’s other great creative partnership during this period was with the composer Michael Nyman, whose repetitive motifs perfectly matched Greenaway’s images and editing rhythms.

Prospero’s Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1996) turned classic literary texts – Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the ‘pillow book’ of Sei Shōnagon – into intricate, multi-layered visual feasts, thanks to then brand new high-definition video technology. Prospero’s Books also features a remarkable late performance by Sir John Gielgud, incarnating Shakespeare’s magician on screen while voicing all the other characters.

Nightwatching (2007)

More recently, Nightwatching (2007) explored the life of Rembrandt van Rijn (Martin Freeman) and the creation of his 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch. Similarly playful artist-inspired features include Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012, about Dutch printer and erotic engraver Hendrik Goltzius), Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015, about Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein) and Walking to Paris (2022, about Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși).

And don’t forget the short films, whether the witty Dear Phone (1976), the conspiracist Vertical Features Remake (1978), the cartographer’s delight A Walk Through H (1979), The Sea in Their Blood (1983), an idiosyncratic tour of Britain’s coastline, or the lustrously beautiful dance piece Rosa (1992). His television output covers people who’ve survived lightning strikes (Act of God, 1980), Four American Composers (1983; Robert Ashley, John Cage, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk) and much more, his small-screen masterpiece being A TV Dante (1990), a collaboration with the artist Tom Phillips that explored the first eight cantos of Dante’s Inferno via the video technology that he’d later adapt for big-screen projects.

Where not to start 

The film that derailed Greenaway’s hitherto glittering career was the 17th-century drama The Baby of Mâcon, which combined extreme sexual violence with the lack of a Michael Nyman score (they’d parted ways over Prospero’s Books). But nobody could accuse it of lacking ideas, in which respect it’s one of the richest of all his films. Commendably, Greenaway’s response to its box-office failure was to turn up to every evening screening during its second and final week in London to defend it in person.

The Falls (1980) and The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003 to 2004, whose three feature films were accompanied by books, CD-ROMs and art installations) are strictly for hardcore Greenaway fans who’ve already been tracing references to his alter ego Tulse Luper across the rest of his output. Endlessly rewarding to initiates, they’re forbiddingly inaccessible to others – not least literally, as the Luper films were barely released.

Frames of Mind: The Films of Peter Greenaway runs at BFI Southbank from October to December 2022. A selection of his films will also be available on BFI Player.

The Draughtsman’s Contract is back in cinemas in a 40th anniversary 4K remaster by the BFI National Archive from 11 November.

The Belly of an Architect is out as a BFI dual format edition (Blu-ray and DVD).

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