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A one-man cinema vanguard and world-class VJ, the British media artist Peter Greenaway is also an unusual personality—at once self-righteous moralizer and sadistic scamp who suggests an unholy combination of Ken Loach’s pedantry and Alfred Hitchcock’s tricksiness. Having relocated to Amsterdam a decade ago, Greenaway has spent much time pondering Holland’s (previous) greatest artist, Rembrandt van Rijn, and, specifically, Rembrandt’s greatest painting, The Night Watch.
The cine-essay-cum-illustrated-lecture Rembrandt’s J’accuse follows Greenaway’s museum installation and feature film Nightwatching (both of which are incorporated), in making a case that The Night Watch—which Greenaway considers to be a form of painted theater—levels an accusation of murder against the civic group that commissioned their portrait. According to Greenaway, this affront to authority precipitated Rembrandt’s downfall. The Rijksmuseum is introduced as a crime scene, with the filmmaker digitally inserted, front and center, using a 31-question countdown structure to interrogate The Night Watch‘s mise-en-scène. Giving nearly as hammy a performance as Charles Laughton’s in the title role of the 1939 Brit biopic Rembrandt, Greenaway is also extremely convincing in his analysis of the painting’s mysteries.
Like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, Greenaway’s erudite J’accuse is concerned with the construction of a legal fiction. While the case would require a Rembrandt specialist like art historian Simon Schama to adjudicate, or at least appear as an expert witness, that would spoil the fun. Peering beneath the painted surface and searching in the shadows, tracking that which was cut from the canvas and mapping the network of glances that remain, the filmmaker uncovers a foul, lurid, corrupt, and perversely compelling conspiracy—which is to say, he successfully turns The Night Watch into a Peter Greenaway film.