★ ★ ★ 1/2
This is my third foray into Peter Greenaway’s repertoire, so I went into this film with a general idea of what to expect, at least in terms of narrative filmmaking and visual style. For those of you unaware of Greenaway’s work, his films are less a narrative fiction, than a sort of visual essay the dissects the theme and tone of the, usually bizarre, narrative.
This film, as hard as it is to summarize, is the story of two twin zoologist brothers whose wives die in a car accident that resulted from a Swan crossing the road on Swan’s Way. The driver, raven-haired Alba Bewick (Andrea Ferreol), looses her leg in the crash. The resulting grief of the brothers results in a morbid fascination with the process of natural decay. As they analyze the beginnings of life from single cell organisms to the decay of everything from an Apple to a Dalmatian, they try to find some solace and purpose in life and the accident. To further complicate the structure, they both begin to have an affair with the legless driver of the fateful vehicle, Alba. In necessity to achieve symmetry, she eventually has her other leg amputated as well. Other characters include a set of conniving zoo keepers, a doctor with a fascination for Vermeer paintings and a whore who recites various prose. Ah yes, and Zebras….lots of zebras.
I won’t lie, this is a difficult film to get through, even for me. However, it’s not a bad film; honestly, it’s kind of cheating to call it a film at all. It doesn’t flow like a normal movie and doesn’t have the aspects we usually look for in narrative storytelling. It truly is, best described, as a visual essay with a loose narrative structure attached for continuity. The direction by Greenaway and cinematography by long-time collaborator Sacha Vierny are exquisite. The images are carefully symmetrical and the lighting approach is very mood oriented. Visually, it is a beautiful film. However, narratively, it is so unique that it is almost hard to rate. Is it pretentious? Yes. Does it have a purpose? Yes. Would a lot of people hate the film? Yes. So, I leave it to you, the viewer, as to whether you think you might like this film or not. I, personally, marveled at the visual beauty and enjoyed it on a level, but can easily see how some people couldn’t even stomach that much of an appreciation. If you are up for a challenge though, this one is a challenge.