Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato is certainly full of a lot of things. The 2015 picture is part biopic, part comedy, part romance, part drama, part mischievous fantasy, and there isn’t a subtle moment to be found. The movie has a kitchen-sink approach and throws a host of cinematic gewgaws around in its drive to brandish itself all over the screen.
Indeed, Greenaway makes it difficult to describe Eisenstein in Guanajuato in flattering terms. While many biographical works at least attempt to inform the audience about the subject, this movie happily obscures reality. It favours discord and discomfort over purpose and consistency. It presents frame after frame of trembling penises, expository vomit, and spiralling speeches.
Elmer Bäck stars as the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein and he’s just arrived in Mexico to scout locations for his next film. He is paired with a handsome guide named Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti) and he sets out to check out various Mexican locales. There isn’t a lot of actual work being done, it would seem, although it is eventually revealed that he shot a great deal of film.
Eisenstein’s voyage to Mexico is funded by Mary Sinclair (Lisa Owen), the wife of Upton Sinclair, and it isn’t long before the director also has Stalin on his tail. Through it all, Eisenstein falls in love with Cañedo and the two have a physical affair. The proposed Mexican project, entitled ¡Que viva México!, takes the back burner for a variety of reasons.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato does cover a particularly fascinating period in the director’s life, with the Mexican odyssey the stuff of lore. He initially entered the project with intentions of crafting a non-political work, but there was considerable interference from Joseph Stalin and the Sinclairs eventually shut down production. The footage for ¡Que viva México! was shipped back to the States.
Greenaway isn’t overly interested in telling the real story and his picture is mostly a sequence of images. He bumps up against history at times, but the argument appears to be that there can be no such thing as historical fact. There are only experiences and therefore Eisenstein in Guanajuato becomes a medley of primitive parts.
Greenaway, cinematographer Reinier van Brummelen, and editor Elmer Leupen work in frenzied fashion and craft a bombardment of images. The picture opens with manic cutting and even slices the screen in three, abandoning documentary-style images in the margins along with more stuff. And the sets are broad, elaborate, unwieldy, and stupid.
One could catalogue other obsessions, like when van Brummelen settles in on a number of direct shots on Bäck’s flaccid penis or when Alberti’s Cañedo plants a Soviet flag in Eisenstein’s ass. This undaunted stuff might normally be the property of an otherwise tepid Will Ferrell-style American comedy, but in Greenaway’s art house the audience is asked to accept it as resolute or daring or culturally so-and-so.
Much has been made of Greenaway’s research for the picture. The dialogue comes from Eisenstein’s own words and runs like a spigot of elastic, inane words. There are no real topics, only themes, and the protagonist’s inevitable return to Stalin’s nightmare is rested on an almost giddy gift for the gab. The artist, at least in Greenaway’s hands, never shuts up.
Bäck’s performance is worth mentioning because it is so dedicated to the disorder of Greenaway’s universe. He is an robust, bed-jumping joker. He is a hellish parcel of drivel that spurts more than he speaks. The performance, such as it is, seems gruelling and Bäck deserves credit for his commitment.
Those looking for cohesion are better served almost anywhere else and those looking for some level of insight into Eisenstein’s life or process during the Mexican “holiday” may be greatly disappointed. This is a fundamentally self-pleasing set of images and ideas and “implications.” It’s a disseminated, exasperating wave and a saturated, muddled mess. It, indeed, suffers from “too much looking.”
Eisenstein in Guanajuato is now available thanks to the good people at Strand Releasing. The DVD release includes trailers and an interview feature with some of the performers.