In 1931 Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein (Bäck) travelled to Mexico to make his new movie. Paired up with guide and assistant Palomino Cañedo (Alberti), Eisenstein rapidly starts to enjoy his new surroundings, distancing himself from the obsessive supervisory figure of Stalin and away from the paranoia Communist-wary Americans. Cañedo’s main task is to keep the eccentric Russian safe from the gangs of bandits preying on the foreign rich for ransom demands, but as time passes the two become good friends and their friendship develops into something deeper.
From the off, Greenaway not surprisingly makes his intentions crystal clear; that he intends to use every camera and post-production trick in the book to augment his movie. Although initially quite satisfying, the endless effects quickly become an unwelcome distraction. The dizzying shots spinning around the excitable protagonist as he skips around the dinner table through to the baffling use of nauseating fish-eye lenses are needless and unpleasant. Clearly renowned for his creative detail, Greenaway seems here to be more concerned about adding post-production effects rather than creating anything theatrically challenging. Gone are the beautiful costume-to-room colour synchronisations of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover, to be replaced by the overuse of split screens, background overlays and rapidly shifting multiple camera angles.
That’s not to say there aren’t some nice ideas scattered around. Still images of the real Eistenstein and Cañedo are often superimposed over the action, at times matching the exact trailing shot of the actors. This is a risky ploy potentially resulting in a disconnect between actor and character, yet Bäck and Alberti’s physical likeness to the men they portray are enough to allow this to function adequately.
Bäck does okay as the frantic Eisenstein but swiftly becomes irritating as the script gives him very little room to develop or manoeuvre, and he spends so much of the running time naked that by the end his penis feels like an old friend. Alberti is good as the smooth Cañedo with the Lee Van Cleef eyes and gracious affections, but both men are particularly difficult to like. Eisenstein comes across tediously scatty and Cañedo irksomely debonair, and as a result it’s tough to truly engage with their relationship.
For all the relatively minor characterisation frustrations, the principal problem with Eisenstein in Guanajuato is that absolutely nothing happens. Apart from the meandering romance between its principal characters and minimal hints at Stalin’s growing annoyance with the director, the movie concerns itself mainly with conversational philosophical musings between the two concerning love, death, power, money and wisdom. This rapidly becomes extraordinarily tedious.
Given the chief reason for Eisenstein being in Guanajuato in the first place was to make a film, it feels strange that not until the last ten minutes or so is the film even mentioned, at which point it is revealed that a hundred miles of film stock has been recorded.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato feels like yet another vehicle for Greenaway’s artistic self-gratification that quickly becomes tiresome as it mutely ponders its own existence. With a desperate desire to be intellectual, it comes across as nothing more than a flippant attempt to condescend its audience; a lush, colourful blanket over its non-existent narrative.
1.5 / 5
Dir: Peter Greenaway
Scr: Peter Greenaway
Cast: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti
Prd: Bruno Felix, San Fu Maltha, Cristina Velasco, Femke Wolting
DoP: Reinier van Brummelen
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Country: Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Mexico, France
Run Time: 105 minutes