Remember Peter Greenaway? Once upon a time, he was the brainiest—if not quite the smartest—of British filmmakers. Trained as a painter and long employed by England’s Central Office of Information, his early avant-garde shorts flaunted an obsession with optics, cartography, archiving, cataloguing, and the invention of geometric or numerical structures that shape the world’s chaos into witty, arbitrary systems. His juvenilia culminated in The Falls (1980), an immense faux-documentary comprising 92 biographies of people whose last names begin with the letters F-A-L-L, each of whom is a survivor of the mysterious VUE, or Violent Unknown Event. For reasons unexplained but exhaustively investigated over the course of three hours, the VUE has something to do with birds, aviation, dreams about water, and the sudden appearance of 92 new languages. The Falls turns cinema into a puzzle or game—one that Greenaway continues to play, with increasing indifference to the amusement of lesser minds.
Everything fell off after The Falls, the most playful and engaging of Greenaway’s compositions, even as his notoriety increased through a series of commercial features. His earliest two, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), play the IFC Center this week in new prints that clarify, among other things, his devotion to non-narrative strategies. They were followed by The Belly of an Architect (1987), a treatise on the 18th-century architect Étienne-Louis Boullée masquerading as a midlife-crisis drama. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) achieved crossover success due to the contribution of serious actors (Helen Mirren, Tim Roth) and some high-minded sex and violence that fortuitously coincided with the NC-17 debate. Prospero’s Books (1991) turned Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a busy postmodern contraption and nudged the Greenaway oeuvre toward a precipitous decline. The Baby of Mâcon (1993) is remembered, if at all, for the climactic gang bang of Julia Ormond, and 8 1/2 Women (1999) was seen by approximately that many viewers.
Greenaway’s latest project, The Tulse Luper Suitcase, is an ongoing multimedia extravaganza consisting of films, books, a website, and—stop the madness!—92 DVDs, the mere idea of which is enough to make one long for simpler times; you know, like when he made movies about cinematic representation vis-à-vis 17th-century landscape art or riffed on the confluence of Darwin, Vermeer, decomposition, amputation, Richard Attenborough, and Siamese twins.
Greenaway may have been a pedantic control freak from the get-go, but The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed & Two Noughts exhibit a cheeky sense of invention before mirthless, calcified mannerism set in. In Draughtsman‘s, the aristocratic Mrs. Herbert commissions a supercilious artist named Neville (Anthony Higgins) to produce a suite of drawings on her estate, an arrangement specifying both the precise number of works to be finished as well as a general agreement that Mrs. Herbert will satisfy the sexual whims of her guest. Erotic shenanigans and intellectual masturbation ensues, accompanied by some of the wittiest dialogue in the Greenaway oeuvre. “Why doesn’t your husband have the moat cleaned out?” Neville asks. “He doesn’t like to see the fish. Carp live too long. They remind him of Catholics.”
The Draughtsman’s Contract gives us murder, a mysterious naked man with chameleon-like abilities, and the sudden appearance of inexplicable motifs in Neville’s drawings, but its main interest lies in the invention of a tone: fastidious meets facetious. That impish sneer will later harden into a grimace, as Greenaway begins to view the world as a sign system awaiting his cerebral orchestration, but the effect in Draughtsman’s is awfully droll. Artificial in the extreme, it may nevertheless be Greenaway’s most naturalistic and easygoing film.
It’s bloody Merchant Ivory compared with A Zed & Two Noughts, an enjoyably decadent, ridiculously convoluted thingamajig that by any sensible standard ought to have been the culmination of a style rather than an early step in its development. The plot is considerably simpler than the intellectual drama: When the wives of Oswald and Oliver Deuce (Brian and Eric Deacon) are killed in a head-on collision with a swan, the twins begin to experiment with time-lapse photography of dead animals and cultivate a relationship with Alba Bewick (Andréa Ferréol), the accident’s sole survivor. Having lost one leg, Alba decides to lose the other for symmetry’s sake, while the boys yearn to be surgically reunited with the help of a shady surgeon (Gerard Thoolen) who stages lavish re-enactments of Vermeer paintings in his spare time. Meanwhile, Venus de Milo (Frances Barber) is telling dirty stories for a small fee, and animal corpses are turning up with improbable frequency.
No movie has ever been less abashed by its mythic, scientific, aesthetic, and metaphysical concerns, here asserting their presence in every inch of the production design and every preposterous plot point. The characters in Zed aren’t convincingly human, but neither are they meant to be. Greenaway is exclusively interested in the details of their anatomy and in assigning them symbolic roles. You want the human touch, go cozy up with Mike Leigh. Hardcore “text” is the name of the game in Greenaway, an artificer of tricky reads who sadly came to nought.