Love them or hate them, there’s no mistaking Peter Greenaway’s films for anyone else’s. From the beginning, Greenaway has combined a formal sense of composition rooted in the art of the 17th and 18th centuries (and, occasionally, Benetton ads) with a daring willingness to drift into abstraction, gamesmanship, and frank eroticism. Greenaway’s films owe as much to painting and theater as other films, but they could belong to no other medium. Even his weaker efforts, like 8 1/2 Women and The Pillow Book—with its nested images—push the visual language of filmmaking in directions no one else has attempted, even though they tend to leave the heart behind.
Greenaway has had trouble finding much of an audience in America this decade. His latest, Nightwatching, is making its U.S. debut on DVD, but it demands a look even from those who checked out on Greenaway a while ago. The director’s most straightforward film in, well, ever, Nightwatching posits that Rembrandt’s most famous painting, The Night Watch, contains accusations of murder and scandal. Following the tangled origin, creation, reception, and aftermath of the painting, it’s essentially a Greenaway take on historical conspiracy theories like The Da Vinci Code. While that sounds tacky—and in an interview contained on the DVD, Greenaway hedges when asked about the sincerity of his theory—it makes for captivating viewing.
Predictably, Greenaway indulges in some arresting, Rembrandt-inspired chiaroscuro image-making, but he gives the film a beating heart in the form of a full-bodied performance by Martin Freeman (best known for his work on the original, UK version of The Office) as Rembrandt. Freeman plays the painter as an emotionally charged, morally upright, deeply vulnerable outsider with a gift for reflecting his age in scenes of passion playing out in fields of darkness. Greenaway’s interpretation of The Night Watch might be suspect, but the film demands that audiences never look at it, or any painting, without looking deeply.
Key features: Speaking of which, the Nightwatching set's second disc contains the companion documentary Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, in which Greenaway serves as narrator and unctuous host, using the cast of the film to unpack his reading of The Night Watch while accusing modern audiences of visual illiteracy. Fair or not, it’s a challenging charge, and he isn't the sort of filmmaker to back down from a challenge.