Monday, October 19, 2009

REMBRANDT'S J'ACCUSE by Peter Greenaway makes Film Forum debut

“Cinema is impoverished, visually,” explains Peter Greenaway to us viewers early on in his (relatively) new film, REMBRANDT’S J’ACCUSE, a combination analysis of and lecture on the Dutch artist’s famous painting from 1642, The Night Watch. Complete with the staged re-enact-
ments and documentary footage, the movie puts forth Greenaway’s theory that, via this painting, the artist has revealed an incident of murder, including the victim, his murderers and others involved in the nefarious deed.

How “impoverished” visually cinema might be is ques-
tionable, TrustMovies thinks, as there are so many varied and vivid visual delights to be had from the array of international filmmakers currently at work. Perhaps Mr. Greenaway means that cinema is impoverished according to his own particular standard and taste. In any case, it is true that this writer/director, from The Draughtsman’s Contract onwards (my first encounter with him), makes his viewers look hard and then piece together what is happening. In Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, however, he helps them along by explaining in detail his theory and its “proof.”

The filmmaker certainly convinced me. That there are other ways to interpret The Night Watch is undoubtedly true, but Mr. Greenaway’s theory makes so much sense, given the detailed evidence he’s amassed, that I shall never again see or think of this painting without its immediately bringing to mind the mystery the director has lain bare. I won’t go into detail here because much of the fun of the film lies in learning about it, but I will say that it involves every-
thing from sexual proclivities to firearms, phallic symbols, conspira-
cies and holding on to power. You’ll get a bracing mix of history, sociology, economics and psychology – Freudian and otherwise.

There’s little doubt in my mind that Greenaway would make a terrific art teacher, at least regarding those paintings, sculptures and architecture to which he is drawn (haven’t most, if not all, of his films had to do with one art or another?). Here, in the nearly 90-minute time it takes to give us his version of The Night Watch, he does so in a manner that’s close to indelible. And while I apprecia-
ted the analysis, lecture and documentary footage, I could have done without the re-enactments. It’s not that they are badly hand-
led (not with actors on the level of Eva Birthistle (above), Jodhi May (below, center), Martin Freeman and Natalie Press on hand). Yet these scenes do not really add enough to the mix, and further, they sometimes clunk – interrupting Greenaway’s good lecture and taking away from the matter at hand via unnecessary repetition. One seldom needs to show and tell, but Greenaway does so here.

What the re-enactments do provide, however, are some gorgeous (and gorgeously lit: see three photos above) visuals. These mimic Rembrandt’s own chiaroscuro effects and add almost tactile costumes and dark, dank sets to the mix. I’d have preferred either a straight documentary approach or a film that laid out Greenaway’s theory in the form of a good, swift engrossing narrative feature. Still, I can’t imagine that any art history or Rembrandt buff will want to pass up J’Accuse. Although the DVD of the film has been available for sale or rent for over a year now, I believe, the chance to finally see it on a big screen – at Film Forum, where it opens this Wednesday, October 21 – should prove too enticing to miss.

(Photos are from the film -- and from Mr. Greenaway's web site.)

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