If you’re going to watch a Greenaway film you are can’t go in expecting to understand everything. You need to loosen your grasp and just let it smack you in the face. There will be a story to hold on to but Greenaway’s films are relentless cornucopias of food, bodies, flowers, violence, and music all so ripe and fecund they have begun to smell. Everything is bloated and fermenting. This includes not just the images but the narrative and meaning as well. There are so many loaded symbols and poetic vignettes that it’s impossible to digest it all. You don’t watch a Greenaway film as much as surrender to it.
Greenaway made Drowning By The Numbers before his better-known film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover but the former was released after the latter. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is much more intense. Drowning By Numbers is a little easier to handle but it still presents the viewer with a morass of material.
Drowning By Numbers creates its own logic, its own structure and then follows that structure forward. The structure is not easy to discern but the film clearly has a planned trajectory, it’s just one we can not see very well. As the film progresses you realize that with each new scene a number appears somewhere on screen. The numbers are sequential and so create a concrete sense of direction, but again we aren’t quite sure what that direction is only that it is somehow linear.
The film centers around a family and alternates between a kind of murder mystery and a humorous display of all the strange games they play. The games are all little encapsulated versions of the film. They are absurd systems that cause the players to interact with the world as if they were explorers or scientists. One game consists of herding a flock of sheep down to the ocean’s edge and tying each one to a chair. On each chair is placed a cup of tea in a saucer. Apparently, sheep are very sensitive to the changing of the tides and will become restless as soon as they they perceive a shift. The sheep are assigned to players and whoever gets a line of 3 sheep in a row that rattle their cup and saucer wins.
The games are reminiscent of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals mixed with a little Monty Python. They provide Drowning By Numbers with humor but they are also a means of further exploring the characters and how they relate to the world and each other.
Drowning By Numbers, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, and Zoo are all brimming with spectacles. It’s not so much the cinematography as it is the mise en scène that is compelling. The screen is jam-packed with objects, colors, shadows, and symbols. Many shots clearly emulate old masters paintings.
What is commonly called a still life in English is referred to in academia as nature-morte. If there is any term that describes a Peter Greenaway film its nature-morte. By its nature, all life decays and dies. Anything from a snail to a leaf, to a banana, can be seen as a symbol of ephemerality and death. In setting up still lives masters like Jan Davidsz de Heem or Frans Snyders had to contend with a grouping of grapes and flowers that would change as they were painted. If a painting took more than a few days the artist would observe the decay of each living thing. The appearance of spots, the gathering of flies, the emergence of odors would all have to not only be witnessed but meticulously observed. If Greenaway films could smell they would smell very, very bad. Greenaway addresses this head-on in Zoo as he presents numerous time-lapse sequences of animals rotting and being devoured by beetles.
Thrown into the mix of overripe of flowers, feathers, and wine Greenaway ads the human body. There is almost always nudity in Greenaway films but it is less sexual than corporal. Characters may be participants in a narrative but they are also clearly ephemera just like the rest of the nature-morte. The sex and nudity we see are less erotic and more a part of our animal nature. It’s less about love and more about bodies and sweat and urges.
Of the films mentioned so far, Drowning By Numbers may be the least compelling. Unfortunately, it falls into a repetitive rut about halfway through. No matter how absurd and strange the beginning of the film is the oddity wears off as you acclimate to Greenaway’s world. The repetition may be dull but it is deliberate. It adds to the absurdity. Monty Python sketches like The Argument or How Not To Be Seen rely on going too far which causes the audience to laugh out of exasperation. The longer the skit persists the more ridiculous it becomes, but in Drowning By Numbers, it doesn’t quite work. The film slows to a halt and ends without much of a rising tension. There is a climactic final scene but by then it’s too late.
One way to see Drowning By Numbers is as an early transitional film. Greenaway’s previous film was an experimental production called The Falls. The Fall’ has no overarching narrative nor any character development. It is a conceptual exercise that is barely visual. Next came The Draughtsmen’s Contract which contained characters and a narrative but was still highly conceptual and hard to understand. Over time Greenaway turned his focus toward the characters and allowed their drama to drive the film. Drowning by Numbers doesn’t quite fit in the conceptual films but the characters and narratives haven’t found center stage yet. It has facets of both but instead of featuring the best of both worlds it feels unresolved and unsure. When Ebert reviewed it he said he was not sure why Greenaway made it.
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