Film Review: ‘Goltzius and the Pelican Company’


British auteur Peter Greenaway’s latest oddity, the elaborately titled Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012), states its intentions in its opening minutes. A man dressed in immaculate period costume, replete with imposing coiffured barnet and an almost absurd European accent introduces himself directly to camera. This is Hendrik Goltzius, a Dutch printmaker being played by Ramsey Nasr, a Dutch writer and actor who was a poet laureate as recently as 2013. “We traded in words. Words in books, words on the stage,” he croons before warning that sooner or later we’ll be getting into bed with lechery. The following will be lusty and dense, and is likely to exhilarate and infuriate in equal measure.

Despite last year’s Bafta commemoration, Greenaway has never been a filmmaker that one would regard as conventional and from its preface, we can be under no illusion that his latest work will be any different. A camera glides from Goltzius’ welcome through the elaborate animated grounds of a grand mansion and to the ornate and wilfully stagy audience chamber of The Margrave (F. Murray Abraham). The eponymous artiste and his company of actors/printmakers wish to part the venerable official with his cash so that they can produce smutty pamphlets and endeavour to secure his backing by performing a series of wanton tableaux.moral Staged within a cavernous warehouse, the artifice of the setting is evident and just forms one aspect of this rich and complex production.

Greenaway is a cinematic artist whether he’s to your taste or not, and this is layered and intricate piece that prods and provokes both the senses and the intellect. As Goltzius and his troupe lay on a debauched interpretation of several biblical vignettes, the director seeks to delve into myriad issues ranging from censorship to religious morality, the capacity of artistic expression and the (movie) theatre as licensed voyeurism. The challenge, as ever with Greenaway, is attempting to filter the sustenance from this imbroglio. Clarity comes in fits and starts which makes the viewing experience a frustrating one; just when an idea or theme seems to have coalesced, it vanishes amidst opacity and flesh.

This is exactly the effect that Greenaway intends – to defy common custom and to break taboos – but it does not make the film more enjoyable even if one can admire from a distance. Yet, even in a state of narrative inertia, Goltzius is glorious to behold, particularly in its overlaying of various elements and some stunning composition. As visually resplendent as it is intellectually esoteric, Goltzius and the Pelican Company is probably one for those already enamoured with its creator, though there are numerous fascinating threads to untangle from this baroque tapestry if one has the patience.

Ben Nicholson