Visually extraordinary, but narratively frustrating, “Goltzius and the Pelican Company,” which showed here at the Rome Film Festival after premiering in The Netherlands, is every sumptuous inch a Peter Greenaway film. So those who are beguiled by the peculiar rhythms of his filmmaking — which often give rise to a kind of tidal waxing and waning of the viewers’ attention — will be delighted by its richness, its erudition and its mischievousness. Detractors, however, may well be able to hold up this film as Exhibit A in the “too-clever-by-half” case against. For our part, ‘Goltzius’ pulled us in and pushed us out repeatedly, and often exactly when we were in danger of being lulled into total insensibility, an indelibly beautiful or grotesque image would emblazon itself across the screen, and our yawns would be stopped in our throats. It’s a trick you can get away with a few times over, but Greenaway does stretch his luck too far here, so that by the end it we were no longer responding to the tweaks of his fishing rod, and had simply drifted away.
The story is inspired by a real man, 16th century Dutch engraver Hendrick Goltzius, whose legacy includes several erotic prints based on stories from the Bible. Here, Greenaway reinvents Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr, the Dutch Poet Laureate, no less) as not just a painter and wannabe publisher, but the leader of a troupe of actors and artists — The Pelican Company. Together they try to convince the local bigwig, the Margrave of Alsace (F Murray Abraham, in a masterful turn), to finance the purchase of a state-of-the-art printing press, the better for Goltzius to disseminate his biblical erotica. They do this by staging elaborate tableaux, usually featuring nudity and often full-on sex, for the lustful Margrave’s entertainment — mini-plays using Bible fables to explore six sexual taboos: fornication, incest, adultery, prostitution, ‘seduction of the young’ and necrophilia. Even within Margrave’s famously liberal court, the plays cause religious and moral outrage, and as free speech and tolerance begin to crumble, some members of the troupe are condemned, some even killed.
But none of that is really the point. Presented in self-consciously stagy format, the six sections separated by long discursive wordplay-heavy monologues from Goltzius, richly attired and often accompanied by Greenaway’s now-trademark text on screen, the majority of the film unfolds in an obviously dressed set — a huge, modern warehouse space which does not draw attention to itself, but is not hidden either. Couple this anachronism with the inclusion of seemingly ‘drawn’ elements, like columns and pillars, and even those parts that happen between the presentational interludes seem designed to communicate their artifice. But what this approach sacrifices in terms of viewer engagement, Greenaway at least partially compensates for with visual exuberance. The painterly composition of the scenes, their rich colors and textures, the shafts of light, the alabaster flesh tones, the judicious use of subtle video effects, all come together on occasion to create images of such depth and detail that, as slow as the film is, you actually wouldn’t mind spending even longer unpacking them.
The intended audience of Greenaway devotees (because we don’t think Greenaway’s overly concerned here with recruiting new fans) is a small enough one, but the copious full-frontal nudity, the erections, the torture and the frequent sex mean this is highly unlikely to get much of a Stateside release at all, save on the safety of DVD. Which is a shame for those few people, because some of those intricate tableaux really do warrant watching on the big screen. However, a handful of startling images, no matter how original, do not a great movie make, and, while there are other positives (we really enjoyed the whistle-stop art history lectures that pepper the narrative), ultimately the film is just too damn long to be so ponderous. And we spend far too much of it in the company of Goltzius, he of the ludicrously over-egged Dutch accent; what is quirky, arch and knowing in the first hour, becomes grating, cartoonish and tiresome by the end of the second.
A graph of our engagement with ‘Goltzius’ would probably show something of a seismic scribble of peaks and troughs that trail off to barely a heartbeat blip every few minutes, which is a shame, because with a little more judicious editing, the positives could easily have outweighed the negatives. As it is, the longer it goes on, the more unshakable the feeling that the film, though undoubtedly smarter than we are, thinks we’re so dumb we need the lesson to be repeated and repeated and repeated. [C+]