Eisenstein in Guanajuato screens exclusively this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For additional ticketing information and showtimes, click here.
The most difficult reviews to write are for those films that are both amazing and forgettable. The kinds of films that exhibit a sense of wonder yet resonate as bizarrely hollow. A film of grand humor and formal sophistication that reveals itself to be extremely shallow. Case in point: Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato.
Before Greenaway indulges in bouts of hyperactive crudeness, Guanajuato initially struck me as a scholarly work. Following Soviet auteur Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) on his trip to Mexico as he prepared for his next production, ¡Que Viva México!, Greenaway goes to great lengths in establishing the contextual urgency of his filmmakers' Soviet exile. In deploying old still photographs in split-screen triptychs while introducing characters, there’s a distinct sense that Greenaway is laying a historical groundwork to explore the insecurities of a gay artist. The perpetual use of split-screen and extensive, Eisenstein-esque use of montage, implores the viewer to engage with the material as a historical text.
Greenaway, however, begins uniting gross and crudely inconsequential vignettes – Eisenstein conversing with his penis, Eisenstein vomiting over his consumption of Mexican food, eventually keeling over a faucet to remedy a bout of violent diarrhea – in an effort to conceal the picture’s absence of plot or tempo. He instead aims to over-stimulate through Elmer Bäck’s frantic anxiety, a performance of such exhaustive hysteria, to propel and generate a sense of motion.
This is my first exposure to Peter Greenaway. I was initially impressed with the director’s visual acuity and sense of generating and maintaining kinetic movement. There are numerous virtuosic moments in the film, particularly one involving a lunch conversation between Eisenstein and his financial backers, that moves through the corridors of a dining hall, eventually spilling out to a veranda, all shot through a seamless panning motion. But these formal exhibitions are really just methods to distract from what is, at its heart, a didactic and monotonous history lesson. That lunch sequence only highlights how tiring Guanajuato ends up becoming - Bäck obnoxiously moves throughout the confines of the frame, expelling a diatribe on the value of artistry and his subsequent exile in a scene that never knows when to end. Another particularly grating example sees Eisenstein’s sexual awakening with his Latino escort, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). Cañedo expels ridiculous rhetoric that compares Eisenstein’s homosexuality with Aztec history and European colonization. As Eisenstein bleeds, Cañedo laughably responds “Small broken injured capillaries in the sensitive anal interior sphincter; recovery almost immediate” before continuing his musing, placating on the spread of syphilis as Cañedo maintains his thrusts and Eisenstein grimaces in pain.
It’s discomforting and noxious. And that’s arguably the point. But there’s a lack of sincerity to the endeavor, with Greenaway’s extravagant gestures accumulating to a miasma of falsehoods and unpleasantness. It’s excessive to a fault, amassed and arranged in such a shoddy fashion, even if the components of the picture show an accomplished visual stylist at work. Greenaway is a mind run amok, ridiculing his character, ridiculing his audience, and rendering much of Eisenstein in Guanajuato as aimless spectacle.