Striking, controversial pieces of avant-garde filmmaking often contain one scene where the line in the sand of mainstream cinema is well and truly obliterated. The Odessa steps sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin stands as an unparalleled and much-studied example. After a number of early warning shots in Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato – close-up full frontal nudity and graphic vomiting – the tipping point pushes the opening delirium over the edge. The director’s latest meditation on sex, death and the nature of being, more a homage to the great Russian’s groundbreaking technique than a biopic, achieves an uncomfortable early climax – if you’ll excuse the pun.
The larger than life eponymous master of montage (Elmer Bäck) loses his virginity to Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), a teacher and cultural attaché of sorts whose duties seemingly know no bounds. Imagine an antithesis to the effortless beauty and intimacy shared by Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Colour, replacing them with two leading men who discuss, between grunts, the vagaries of Bolshevism. Needless to say Eisenstein in Guanajuato, like Marmite, will elicit drastically divergent reactions. At what point does the consistently gratuitous and quirky subject matter lose its amusing shock value? Does Eisenstein demonstrate unhinged but brilliant madness or something more sinister? Hard to say. Greenaway’s film, like its central pairing, is brave and bold as brass in both its content and visual aesthetic. Any real sense of plot is subordinate to existentialist spectacle but insomuch as there is a narrative, it proceeds as follows.
Bathing in the limelight of his early successes, Eisenstein travelled to South America in 1931 to film sweeping historical epic Que Viva Mexico, a project that would never be fully realised. In the titular city he meets, befriends and is then bedded by the aforementioned Cañedo who wilfully and inexplicably abandons his wife and children to facilitate the boyish, vulnerable but visionary filmmaker’s sexual awakening. Ruminations on mortality, achieving lasting fame to match that of numerous cultural luminaries whose names and images are dropped, and dealing with frustrated investors all fall through a kaleidoscopic looking glass. In terms of style and composition Eisenstein in Guanajuato is off the charts superb: colour and monochrome are blended within the same frame, a split screen frequently chops time and place into threes, jump cuts and frantic edits flit hither and thither, and the insertion of images from Eisenstein’s work appear barely long enough for our brains to catch up with our eyes.
Snippets of dialogue are also riffed and replayed, the camera revolves through 360 degrees with centrifugal perfection and vibrant CGI creations plunge us deeper into a dizzying melting pot. However, all the smoke and mirrors in the world can’t make up for the fact that behind Greenaway’s astounding visual trickery and his characters’ incessant tomfoolery there isn’t anything of real substance to grapple with here. Finnish actor Bäck, with hair to rival Art Garfunkel, is astonishingly energised and manic in the lead turn but it is unlikely this film will live as long in the memory as the work of the man he embodies with such aplomb in Greenaway’s latest outing.