BOOKS AND ARTS NOVEMBER 7, 2009
Elephant Eye Films
Peter Greenaway, the British director who was educated as a painter, first came to wide attention in 1982 with The Draughtsman’s Contract, a silky comedy about seventeenth-century aristocrats. Greenaway then promptly set out not to build on this success, undertaking one eccentric film project after another. It was almost as if he were determined not to grow cumulatively, as most of the best directors have done. Of the Greenaway works that I have seen, only two of them--quite unlike each other--stand out in memory. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was a modern comedy that revealed how sex can be achieved in restaurant restrooms. Prospero’s Books, a slanted view of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, put the future in debt to Greenaway by preserving John Gielgud’s exquisite reading of Prospero.
Now Greenaway turns to the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse is a study of that painter’s most famous work, The Night Watch, and though it certainly is a study, it is also--or primarily--a fascinating film. Greenaway has a thesis, possibly stated previously in the mountain of publications about Rembrandt. The painting, familiar to millions, shows a group of civilian militiamen in Amsterdam rousing to an alarm. Greenaway’s film sets out to prove that the painting is really an exposé of a murder--of one officer by another. Twenty points, all visual, are made to support this thesis.
He embeds his inquiry in an attractive style, decked with dramatized expeditions into Rembrandt’s life, with scrutiny of details in the painting that makes us realize we have never looked carefully enough. In the low center of the screen through most of the picture is Greenaway himself, speaking about what we are seeing. He is always lucid and crisp, never didactic. Meanwhile, the screen keeps fragmenting around him into various shots of Night Watch details, or overriding him as we go back to Rembrandt’s Amsterdam and the creation of this painting.
What is especially taking is that those inserts--can we say “flashbacks”?--are couched in the same light that we have all grown to love in that period. The cinematographer, Reinier van Brummelen, who has often worked with Greenaway, seems to understand what Rembrandt saw in the very idea of light. There are several sources of light in The Night Watch, not the usual single one, a matter that van Brummelen understands in his own work.
The murder thesis is too complicated to summarize, but here are a few of the details. A glove that is held by one man is for the wrong hand: he lacks a left glove, not the right-hand one that is shown. A weapon that another man grasps is held in a sort of penile position, and the shadow of another man’s weapon falls across the first man’s crotch. All the data may or may not support the murder thesis, but at least they adroitly parse the painting. In the event, however, one of the best proofs that Rembrandt was revealing a crime is circumstantial. After 1642, when this painting was made, his financial condition sharply worsened. He continued to paint some of the greatest of all paintings, but patronage fell far off. In 1642, when he was thirty-six, he was a successful artist and teacher; when he died in 1669, he was virtually a pauper. It certainly is arguable that the Amsterdam bourgeoisie punished him for his daring.
Questions remain that Greenaway doesn’t raise. Why did Rembrandt do it? If he knew of a crime or suspected one, why, instead of reporting it, did he spend all that time and talent suggesting it in a painting--a huge one, too? And what did he do about the crime, or what was done to him besides the neglect, after the work was finished? Greenaway saith not. He merely puts forth his implications and inferences in a highly unusual, thoroughly intriguing film.
The Night Watch has had a weird physical history. In 1715 it was moved from one building in Amsterdam to another, and because its new space was smaller than the first, the picture was trimmed on all four sides. (A copy of the original exists.) In 1911 a visitor to the Rijksmuseum, where it hangs, attacked it with a pocket knife. In 1975 a man again attacked it with a knife. The second assailant, says David Freedberg in The Power of Images, directed his slashes at one of the figures who is prominent in Greenaway’s story. Freedberg notes: “The man [the assailant] may have been completely beyond the pale, but he was not completely out of control.” The connection with Greenaway’s thesis is thin, but it exists.
How discomfiting it is to see a good film from a country that is low on any list of film-producing nations. The Maid is so good that it makes me uneasy because, as far as I can remember, it is the first picture I have seen from Chile. This apparently has been a neglect. True, the director and co-author Sebastián Silva had some of his film training in Canada and now lives in New York, but he began his training in Santiago and made both his feature films there.
His second, The Maid, co-written with Pedro Peirano, could hardly be more Chilean. Silva says he shot it in the house where he grew up in Santiago, and his younger brother Agustín apparently stands in for him as the late adolescent that he was at the time of the story. Nestled in these familiarities is an unusual account of a usual occurrence. The film begins as a story about a prosperous middle-class Santiago family--mother and father, twentyish daughter, teenage son, two small boys--who happen to have a live-in maid. We think we are in for a family tale. The focus shifts. The story is about the maid.
And there is a further shift, or realization, as the film progresses. When a story focuses on a person or persons whom we expected to be secondary--the valet in Harold Pinter’s The Servant, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s play and screenplay--we think that there is some plot-driven reason for the shift, some twist that we would have missed if we had concentrated on the principals. But Silva’s point, which is quite daring, is not to disclose a plot twist but simply to view one of the usually ignored lives in a household. There are no dramatic surprises or cynical counterpoints in The Maid: it is simply an account of what it was like to be Raquel.
She has been with the family for twenty-three years: in fact, says the mother of the house, she arrived before their oldest child. Early in the film, they all celebrate Raquel’s forty-first birthday, but Raquel is the one who celebrates it least. In the privacy of her room, we soon see that her life is bottled up in her, constrained. She loves the children and they love her; but she is no sweet domestic. Her outlets of feeling are in small tyrannies. She is jealous of her little domain of privileges, a bit bossy. Without presumption, she feels that being the maid there for so long bestows at least some emotional and executive rights on her.
One day, alone in the house, hurrying to answer the phone, she collapses. She pulls herself together in time to answer a second call. She tells no one. Not long after, however, she collapses again when there are family around. She recovers in a hospital, and the mother then insists on something that Raquel has long opposed--an assistant for her. (It’s a good-sized house.) A Peruvian au pair girl is brought in, and Raquel soon makes her life so miserable that she quits. A tough old bird of a servant is then brought in, and after Raquel tries some of her tricks on her, the older woman quits, too. Then the mother brings in a woman almost Raquel’s age who, so to speak, pacifies Raquel by understanding her. In time this third assistant leaves, too, for her own personal reasons, but changes have occurred.
Silva says that when he was the adolescent in this story, he used to wonder about the life so close to his family but quite separate from it that was going on under the same roof. This is hardly a new reaction, but the first of Silva’s virtues is that he didn’t dramatize--not much, anyway: he empathized. The result is not precisely exciting, but it has the pleasures of eavesdropping.
Most of the picture takes place within the house, and Silva uses it in a constantly cruising way that makes us feel like residents. Sergio Armstrong’s camera is frequently handheld and keeps the picture limber. (There is, however, one zoom that is sheer movieness.) Catalina Saavedra gives Raquel an apt aggressiveness with the necessary tinge of pathos, and Mariana Loyola is entirely credible, which is saying something, as the warmhearted third assistant who does much for Raquel.
The easy competence of the whole cast makes us remember that, though Chile doesn’t produce many films, it must have busy theater and television fields in order for such a corps of competent actors to be available. The same must be true of the craftsmen involved here. It is awesome to think of the many other countries, generally uncelebrated, where good film-making is probably going on of which we know little. This global ignorance of ours applies of course to all the arts, literature especially; but film, when it strikes home, surges so warmly that our loss of much of the world’s work feels all the more frustrating.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.