EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015) review
written by: Peter Greenaway
produced by: Bruno Felix, San Fu Maltha, Christina Velasco & Femke Wolting
directed by: Peter Greenaway
runtime: 105 min.
U.S. release date: February 5, 2016 (limited) and February 12-18, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
Fifteen minutes into watching Peter Greenaway’s “Eisenstein in Guanajuato”, I found myself grateful it wasn’t in 3D. In the majority of that short time, the lead actor Elmer Bäck is completely naked, had already taken two showers and wound up drunk, vomiting and defecating in a Guanajuato, Mexico alley. Greenaway is just getting started – later on, we’ll see Eisenstein talk to his penis. If you’re coming to this film with no prior knowledge of Russian auteur Sergei Eisenstein, just know that writer/director has a specific portrayal in mind – one that reminded me of Tom Hulce’s delirious antics in “Amadeus”. The difference is Hulce was acting in an excellent, far superior film.With that in mind, a question surfaces. After making a name for himself with such groundbreaking films as “Strike” and “Battleship Potemkin”, both in 1925, followed by “October” in 1928, how exactly did Eisenstein wind up in Mexico?
Well, in the spring of 1930, the filmmaker was spending time in Hollywood on Paramount’s dime along with his film collaborator Grigori Aleksandrov (Rasmus Slätis) and cinematographer Eduard Tisse (Jakob Öhrman), with the promise of potential film projects. He soon received heated backlash from conservative studio heads, claiming Eisenstein was a communist and all opportunities were squashed. This compels the frustrated auteur to label himself: Jew. Red. Troublemaker. Communist.
At the suggestion of his new friend Charlie Chaplin, Eisenstein hooked up with American socialist couple, writers Upton Sinclair and his wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair (Lisa Owen). The couple supported Eisenstein and secured an approval for him to remain in North America and travel to Mexico to shoot a film, which would be backed by the Sinclairs and other investors. The director and his entourage made their way to Mexico in 1931, with the goal to produce a film called, “¡Que viva México!”, which the Sinclairs hoped would be something of a travelogue, but the stubborn and unpredictable Eisenstein had something else in mind after becoming enraptured by the country’s history, culture and carnal delights.
When Eisenstein arrives in Mexico, pestering flies buzz all around him – as if he’s a steaming pile of dung. It’s annoying to him and this is where Greenaway gets a little ADHD with his approach – cutting to extreme close-up shots of flies in break-away frames. We also get triptych frames where the actual narrative remains in the middle frame, while stock photos of famous (mostly) people Eisenstein meets – like Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera on the left and right of the screen. Sometimes there’s text that pops up on-screen reminiscent of brushwork and other times a purposely fake background appears behind the actors that feels similar to something you’d see in an early 90s CD-ROM game. All of this may be Greenaway’s style and purposeful, but it draws too much attention to itself, quite often pulling viewers out of the story.
We get to the heart of Greenaway’s story when Eisenstein meets his personal guide, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), who is assigned to show the director around and meet his needs. He is a handsome, well-kept married man and a scholar of comparative religion. Palomino is a caring father of two and assumed devoted husband and confidently in tune with his own pansexuality, something he will soon awaken in Eisenstein. He gets a kick out of Eisenstein’s incorrigible behavior and the fact that he only brought with him one white suit, no socks and black shoes. The locations Palomino show Eisenstein and his crew are quite beautiful and lend themselves well cinematic material for the director’s film about Mexico, but also Greenaway’s film about Eisenstein losing himself in Guanajuato. He is shown the fascinating Museo de las Momias that houses mummified ancestors of the land. That leads to a scene in a cemetery where Eisenstein and Palomino recount many famous Russian, Mexican and American figures who are dead and, in some cases, how they died. That scene ends with Eisenstein lamenting, “I’m not so sure that filmmakers will be remembered.” Yet, here we are.
The two characters are drawn to each other and after a very interesting conversation about how sex and death – what Eisenstein calls, “the two non-negotiables” – are portrayed in theater and the movies and how they are looked upon differently in Russia and Mexico, Palomino introduces Eisenstein to the penetrating love from a man. Greenaway spends a good deal of time showing Palomino mount Eisenstein over and over and over. It becomes humorous because of how tedious and exhausting it gets, but after a while I found myself rolling my eyes whenever these two hook up. I understand spontaneity and lust, but their hook-up just seems forced here.
If you recall Ewan McGregor in Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book”, you may remember that the director has a proclivity for displaying naked male genitalia and buttocks and his films are known for their variety of debaucheries. In fact, the writer/director was somewhat responsible for establishing the NC-17 rating with 1989’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and included a certain amount of kink in “Prospero’s Books”. In recent years though, Greenaway has focused on films depicting a certain time of life in artists, such as Rembrandt in “Nightwatching” and Hendrik Goltzius, the Dutch engraver known for his erotic prints – so seeing his focus on a venerated Russian filmmaker is no surprise. Needless to say, at age 73, Greenaway is in no way showing any signs of slowing down and creating films that will be received by any viewer.
Without having a thorough understanding of who Eisenstein was before seeing this film, except for the iconic films he directed, I can’t speak to how true or loyal Greenaway is to his subject and his time spent in Mexico. Bäck’s portrayal as Eisenstein is definitely all or nothing – often quite amusing and impressive, diving unabashedly into the character’s brazen attitude toward life, yet without delving into what he feels internally. Most of the time, he’s just a big kid parading around with no pants and Yahoo Serious hair.
Eisenstein filmed over 250 miles of film during his time in Mexico, which the powers that be back in Mother Russia would never allow him to edit. “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” seems to communicate that this was his country’s way of punishment for his homosexual activity while away from the USSR (similar to what we learned at the end of “The Imitation Game”), but it’s hard to tell the truth considering it felt like Greenaway exaggerated certain aspects of Eisenstein’s life for his own stylistic agenda.