¿Que Viva Peter Greenaway? Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Luis Alberti and Elmer Bäck in EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Opens February 5

Some films are ruined by their directors’ desire to make them stylish and visually interesting every single minute. British director Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajauto—which depicts ten days in the legendary Russian filmmaker’s life as he attempted to shoot ¡Que Viva Mexico! and lost his virginity—is one of them. This is the kind of over-the-top anti-biopic at which Derek Jarman and Ken Russell excelled, although even they didn’t always get it right. While the results aren’t worthless (for one thing, they show a welcome openness to male nudity), they often look like a demo for editing software.

Eight months into a trip to Mexico in 1931, Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Back) is at a creative crossroads. He was courted, then rejected by Hollywood and feels pulled to come back to an increasingly tyrannical Stalinist regime in Russia. However, he meets bisexual guide Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti) and explores his homosexuality, which he had repressed back home. He examines the connections between sex and death, but he never manages to make a coherent film out of ¡Que Viva Mexico!

Greenaway’s film suffers from an ability to reign in its own excess. For instance, a lengthy scene in Eisenstein’s hotel room is shot via 360-degree pans. These go on so long that they became grating; sensitive spectators might develop nausea if they’re sitting too close to the screen. It’s unclear what this device adds to the drama, except a dollop of “style.” Most of Greenaway’s other tricks succumb to the same delusion. He splits the screen into as many as six frames. Early on, he includes many clips and stills from Eisenstein’s first three films. It’s an odd effect, because Eisenstein in Guanajauto is quite far from realism, yet it still tries to convince us that its lost-Marx-brother version of the Russian director is the true deal. It also attempts to be an affirmative gay love story, yet its big sex scene is drained of eroticism by containing a lecture on the history of syphilis. Greenaway needed to let go and lighten up here, but I fear he’s completely incapable of doing so.

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