Eisenstein in Guanajuato is the latest film by Peter Greenaway and it’s undeniably his strongest work in years but that’s not saying a whole lot. Greenaway made his name in the ’80s with baroque styled films which often bordered on the surreal and always looked like the work of a master painter instead of a filmmaker. He was once the darling of British cinema but since the late ’90s there has been an increasing dip of quality in his work.
This film however tackles the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and his trip to Mexico after he had a miserable experience trying to get films made in Hollywood. Eisenstein is able to get the film ¡Que viva México! off the ground which is bankrolled by the American writer Upton Sinclair but was never completed. Eisenstein went way over budget and shot tons of footage so Sinclair stepped in and took the film and Eisenstein never was able to finish his own edit. The film however focuses on Eisenstein “sexual awakening” in Mexico instead.
Greenaway’s later films are always about two things art and sex and often not much else. He has made many films about painters in the last decade so it was obvious he would do one on a filmmaker at some point. Greenaway considers Eisenstein to the great filmmaker ever since he saw Strike when he was a teenager. However he seems more obsessed with seeing Eisenstein getting anal by his Mexican male host more than showing a second of Eisenstein at work at his unfinished masterpiece.
Eisenstein’s sexuality is known to film scholars but it barely informed his filmmaking style which was all about montage. Battleship Potemkin is probably his most “queer” film because after all it is about sailors and he did shoot the male body with a slight fetishistic desire. The Pet Shop Boys also did a much celebrated score for Battleship Potemkin as well. However his life and filmmaking is so fascinating itself it doesn’t really make sense to focus on his sexual life which till this trip was pretty much non-existent. He would on his return to Russia marry a woman as well.
Despite some flaws it’s not without merits and has a strong lead performance by Elmer Bäck with hair so uneven it gives Tim Burton’s a run for its money. It’s totally exaggerated and falls somewhat into caricature but it’s an impressionist biopic than biography so it’s works in the long run. Given it’s Greenaway it’s designed to an inch of its life and contains beautiful use of fish-eye lenses which warp the sets. Greenaway also uses montage, black and white, photographs and even triptych split-screens and it’s varies from the inspired to pure self-indulgence.
It’s a fascinating film which at points reaches the sublime but ultimate disappoints but it certainly has more of narrative hook than Greenaway’s other recent output. However it seems like his more interested in his typical orgy of sex and art than paying tribute to one of his cinematic heroes. The disc’s special features include an interview with Greenaway and another with Elmer Bäck and Luis Alberti who plays Eisenstein’s host Palomino Cañedo.