VOD film review: Eisenstein in Guanajuato
James R | On 16, Apr 2016
Director: Peter Greenaway
Cast: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti
Watch Eisenstein in Guanajuato online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / BFI Player / Sky Store
How do you edit a film about Eisenstein? Don’t stop. Director Peter Greenaway takes that joke to the extreme for Eisenstein in Guanajuato, a film so hyper-stylised that it makes the Bourne franchise look like something by Bela Tarr.
The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is famed for pioneering the concept of montage, for crystallising the strange magic that is created by simply putting two images next to each other. Greenaway’s film, which follows the director’s visit to Mexico in the 1930s, doesn’t so much pay homage to that theory as it does pick it up and run with it as quickly as possible from one frame to the next. Barely five seconds go past without a cut, making for a dizzying, frantic, mesmerising watch.
We follow Sergei as he attempts to make a movie in Mexico, only to fall for his guide, Palomino. There’s no record of this tryst ever taking place, but that’s not something to stop Greenaway: his movie has its roots in fact, but finds its body (and heart) in a fantasy world of made-up details. That makes perfect sense when we meet Eisenstein: Elmer Bäck’s performance as the filmmaker is wonderfully manic, presenting our hero as the kind of visionary who’s as happy to chat about the Russian Revolution as he is to ramble incoherently and do horse impressions. Within minutes of him being introduced, he’s talking to his own penis in the shower. While shadow boxing.
That creative energy drives the film’s exploration of artistic frustration – after Battleship Potemkin, Eisentein has just been rejected by Hollywood and faces pressure to return to his Stalinist home – as well as its whirlwind romance. Luis Alberti is just as captivating; even his pencil moustache exudes erotic charisma. Together, the couple are great to watch, delivering what might be one of cinema’s most realistic sex scenes – a lengthy midway sequence that moves from awkward intimacy and physical pain to humour and even a historical debate. Compared to what normally passes for intercourse in movies, this is graphic, surprising and undeniably bold.
If the film is successful at capturing such ecstatic moments, though, it’s less so when it comes to an overriding narrative – something that may be a problem for many viewers. It’s also slightly hard to buy into the notion that Eisenstein is only just losing his virginity here, given how subversive and cheeky Elmer’s presence is. But the contrast of Eros and Thanatos – love and death – makes for an attractive framework, from the eye-opening bedroom scenes to the Day of the Dead parades at the movie’s climax. Throughout, Greenaway channels the giddiness of the two extremes, from fish-eyed swoops through the interiors of stunning buildings to split-screens that convey the stream of thoughts running through Sergei’s sexually confused head. He talks of famous figures or places and they immediately pop up on the left or right of him, while the camera repeats short clips over and over again for comic effect. You’ve never seen a film like this, especially one about a real person.
The result is an anti-biopic that isn’t afraid to buck convention and do its own thing, including disregard truth altogether. It’s a thrill to see a 74-year-old filmmaker still producing something with the all the intense energy of a first-time filmmaker. Would Eisenstein recognise anything of himself in this? Who cares when the editing is this good?