Monday 22 June 2015

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Cissie Colpitts 2, Cissie Colpitts 1 and Cissie Colpitts 3
Peter Greenaway films always make me want to make movies.  I’ve watched a few of his films for The Penciltonian - ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ (1989), and ‘The Baby of Macon’ (1993, but I didn’t write it up because it was too horrible), and they always fascinate me.  He was trained as a painter, and came to cinema as a visual medium (which is what it is); he’s dismayed (or so he tells us in every interview) that most films are illustrated versions of novels, presenting pre-existing prose stories, rather than making more original use of cinema’s potential.

‘Drowning by Numbers’ is a film about drowning and counting.  It regards three women, all named Cissie Colpitts, who realise they can drown their husbands and get away with it by asking the local coroner nicely.  He’s a friend of the family, and he’s in love with them all.  These are not the only Cissie Colpittses in the Greenaway canon - there are three more in ‘The Falls’ (1980), and one in the three volumes of ‘Tulse Luper Suitcases’ (2003-2004).  No relation.  Anyway, as it transpires, it’s quite easy to drown people if you don’t have a particularly good motivation to do so, as the victim doesn’t see it coming.

Cissie Colpitts (Joely Richardson), and Bellamy (David Morrisey)
The film opens with an unnamed child, a real Bonnie Langford type, wearing a flouncy dress, and skipping with a rope; with each skip, she gives a number, and names one of the stars in the sky.  We see and hear her render one hundred of them.  It's quite a long, methodical way to start a film.  The numbers appear again throughout the film, starting with a ’1’ in the next scene, right up to a ‘100’ in the final shot, often written on walls or signs or bees.  It’s a pattern to follow, a game in a film about games.  'Drowning by Numbers’ is an art film.

It’s a film you’d watch for the ideas, not for the emotion.  The actors are excellent (and rightly famous), the characters are engaging, and the dialogue is interesting and amusing, but the film is so deliberately odd, so overtly theme-led as to throw up a verfremdungseffekt, deliberately alienating the viewers.  The piece, the staging, the lighting and the plot are beautiful, but obviously artificial.  Characters’ particular obsessions pepper their dialogue very heavily, and everything comes back to water, and to counting.

Bees 45 and 46
I’ve heard it said that Peter Greenaway only has one film, which he keeps making again and again.  I’m not sure if I quite agree, but it has the ring of truth.  Since 1981, their plots have generally been very close - an artist, a cook, an architect, or on this occasion a coroner, sets himself a task, probably something which will set up a lasting legacy, which may involve sex as a perk, or payment.  There’s a big bed that serves as a stage, there’s a big meal, there’s a big conspiracy with all the subtlety of Hamlet’s players; and then there’s more sex, which is generally sad or awkward, never sexy.  And in the end our hero dies, and/or has their eyes put out.  But his films aren’t really about plot, they’re about lighting, colour, themes, patterns and decay.

If the films are all similar, then what makes this one stand out?  That’s a tricky question.  It might have the best roles for women.  As above, there’s normally a male protagonist at the core of the film.  There is here, too, but his story is very much secondary to that of the three Colpittses - Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson are each excellent as Cissie, and it’s those characters who make the decisions that drive the story (though it seems certain choices run in the family).  They're almost the only characters to have forenames.  What else is different about this film?  I’d suggest the thing with the numbers, except that ‘Tulse Luper Suitcases’ does something a little similar; or the great quantity of dead animals on screen, except that ‘A Zed & Two Noughts’ (1985) trumps all over that record.  The South Coast scenery, perhaps, and the particularly misty feel of the air.  I think ‘Drowning by Numbers’ is more overt about its artificiality than any of Greenaway’s classic works, though it has some stiff competition.

Cissie Colpitts (Joan Plowright) and Madgett (Bernard Hill)
It’s not my favourite of his films.  That honour goes either to ‘The Falls’ or ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’, but I’ve probably over-watched those two.  I’ve been really looking forward to seeing this one again.  Like ‘A Zed and Two Noughts’, it’s really enhanced by its new blu-ray release.  Normally I don’t care about the novelty of high-definition, but Michael Nyman’s music - always a star in its own right - sounds much richer when it’s less compressed, and the DVD release of this film was a particularly awful transfer.  The film is much clearer, now.  When someone puts this much attention into framing, lighting and cinematography, it’s good to be able to watch it as they intended.

P.S. 1988 was an exciting year for films.  This is the year that gave us The Last Temptation of Christ, A Short Film About Killing, Akira, Die Hard, Drowning by Numbers and My Neighbour Totoro.  Since it was also the year of 'First We take Manhattan', 'The Satanic Verses' and 'Remembrance of the Daleks', I'd be happy to see another 1988, at least in the arts.

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