Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 03, 2016 12:45 pm 
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Sergei comes out, with gay abandon

Sergei Eisenstein, according to this film, was a busy, pleasant, slightly clueless Russian with bushy hair. The actor who plans him, the buoyant and appealing Finn Elmer Bäck, looks a lot like pictures of the director at the stage of his life being depicted here, at the age of 33, when he traveled to Mexico. This isn't as austere or demanding, or as pretentious, as Greenaway's most famous works, Drowning by Numbers, The Draftsman's Contract, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, certainly not as exquisite or technically complex as The Pillowbook. Unfortunately, we feel Greenaway's eccentricity in a different way: in how irrelevant this film and its version of the great Russian director feel. But we're not meant to worry about that. It's about how Eisenstein lost his virginity and acknowledged his homosexuality, an interlude that surely must have been personally significant, but had little, from what we see here, to do with his career as one of the world's great pioneering filmmakers.

That comes as a lark; it doesn't seem painful or difficult, just something Eisenstein had been putting off and now, in Mexico, was finally ready for. Maybe he needed a Latin man, and this he finds in the attentive Palomino Cañedo (the sleek, sexy, smart Luis Alberti), a professor of comparative religion who has been made Eisenstein's interpreter and aide, and now provides a fucking with his large, and in the film, prominently displayed, Mexican penis. Eisenstein in Guadajuato is jaw-droppingly free with full male frontal nudity and graphic sex, which seems distracting and frivolous. It takes over. But here Greenaway has produced a unique artifact, and something that for those open to it, which is not everyone, certainly, is highly accessible and maybe enjoyable, even if it's hardly up to his best work.

In his own plot summary for IMDb Greenaway fully acknowledges Eisenstein's greatness, and states that his sexual awakening in Mexico was highly significant for him and "pivotal" for his work between Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October,and "his hesitant later career with Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible and The Boyar's Plot." The year was 1931. Eisenstein had come at the urging of a group of American communists led by Uptan Sinclair, with travel funding provided by Vladimir Lenin himself, to make a film that was to be called "Que viva Mexico."

Though at first glance, at least, the film doesn't quite seem to work, there's an admirable sprezzatura about how despite being in awe of Eisenstein and considering this to be a key moment in his idol's life, Greenaway manages to depict events in such a light and irreverent manner. In his Feb 2015 Berlinale review for Variety Peter Debruge calls the film an "irreverent, yet meticulously researched passion project."

It's not fair to imply this film isn't technically complex -- despite its air of frivolity and carelessness, embodied even in the buffoonish manner of Eisenstein himself, with his puffy hair, one white suit, and red suspenders. The sets are elaborate, especially the large hotel room in which the master's virginity is lost, and it's fitted with screens on the walls where other things can be projected, including blowups of Eisenstein's pornographic drawings, other scenes of the actors, and non-stop dialogue drawn from Eisenstein's writings, along with frequent flash-ups of period portrait photos of personalties in the story. As Debruge says, "it's a lot to take in." Maybe Debruge is partly right when, in his publication's occasional spirit of enthusiastic puffery, he calls this an "outrageously unconventional and deliriously profane biopic that could take decades to be duly appreciated." A lot of Greenaway is the purview of over-the-top cinephiles, fans, and film students, and this, sui generis though it is, will be no exception. But Debruge's review goes overboard with the superlatives: Greenaway's Eisenstein trivializes its hero and leaves little impression other than a goofy sexual overtness. Its glittering effects and complex lore dazzle, then fall away, like confetti.

Eisenstein in Guadajuato, 105 mins., debuted at Berlin in Feb. 2015, and showed at two dozen international festivals. It opened theatrically in France 8 July 2015 as Que viva Eisenstein!, and was widely written about; AlloCiné cites 20 reviews; but the average is a tepid 3.2 out of 5 stars. Vincent Ostria of Les Inrockuptibles wrote "One could consider this a demolition job by Greenaway like a Monty Pythonesaue farce were it not that he continually presents himself as an avant-garde artist." Strand's US theatrical release begins 5 Feb. 2016 (New York and Los Angeles).

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