Friday, October 5, 2012

Murder, He Doodled: "Nightwatching" (2009)

Controversial film maker Peter Greenaway tackles a conspiracy theory he believes was painted into Rembrandt's masterpiece "The Night Watch", and succeeds in making this critic hate all that art and stuff.

Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is a famous painter living in the 1600's Netherlands. He is married to Saskia (Eva Birthistle), a relative of his agent/manager, and his house is a never ending chaos of servants, debauchery, and noise. Rembrandt is asked to do a group portrait of the Amsterdam Militia. The soldiers jockey for placement in the painting, when one of them is killed in an "accident." Rembrandt soon learns this was no accident, and paints his conspiracies and accusations into the artwork, turning a simple group portrait into an indictment. Wow, rereading the plot summary, I would want to see that movie, too! Instead, what writer/director Peter Greenaway gives us is a boring scattershot film which cannot decide whether it is a biopic, a thriller, or a work of experimental art itself.

Freeman is expertly cast...if he was playing Keith Moon. Greenaway shows us a vulgar, crass, drunk, uncouth, and unlikable Rembrandt who quickly grates on the nerves with his behavioral excesses. He is a genius, so his conduct is constantly excused. Emily Holmes, Eva Birthistle, and Jodhi May play the women in Rembrandt's life, but thanks to Greenaway's stilted direction, his servant/mistresses become interchangeable. I was not a fan of Greenaway's breakout "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover", and Greenaway stiffly directs this film in the same manner. Most of it is stagebound, save a few exterior scenes, but the subjects are placed far from the camera (as if in a painting), and the viewer will have a difficult time differentiating between who is speaking and who is being spoken to (and I had a big TV to watch this on). Greenaway is in such a hurry to make the film that he never involves the audience, speaking down to the viewer who must go Wikipedia all the names brought up.

While a lecture on fine arts is about as interesting to me as auto mechanics or agricultural reporting, I gamely watched this all the way through, waiting to care about someone onscreen. The big conspiracy that Rembrandt exposes in his painting is based on nothing more than gossip and hearsay, and we must take Greenaway's word on everything while he does everything in his writing and directorial power to frustrate the audience.

What we have is an overlong, gimmicky exercise in theatre, highlighted by Greenaway's penchant for nudity. After a while, all the penises and pubes in the world don't make any of this more understandable. Pretentiousness is sometimes mistaken for boldness, but "Nightwatching" is simply pretentious, no mistake about it. (*) out of five stars.