It’s on record that Soviet filmmaking pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, October, and the film school staple Battleship Potemkin), after his professional endeavors in Hollywood were thwarted by anti-communist bias, ventured to Mexico to direct a feature in 1931. Privately funded by lefty author Upton Sinclair, ¡Que Viva México! was never finished and was ultimately taken away from Eisenstein.
Don’t expect to see him on set calling action in this metatextual, mildly anachronistic biopic from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover auteur Peter Greenaway. Barely focused on his subject’s creative frustrations, Greenaway’s playfully experimental, exhaustingly ambitious homage to his cinema hero gives imagined interpersonal context to “the ten days that shook Eisenstein.” The olive-oil-slicked centerpiece, mirroring the two halves of the Soviet’s career, predicates that he lost his anal virginity at 33 to his suave local guide (Luis Alberti), a rebirth out of repression that affected his future output.
Flamboyantly portrayed by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck as a manically childlike, self-delusional eccentric in a single white suit (though he’s frequently nude) and an Eraserhead shock of hair, this stylized version of Eisenstein is an unrealistic force of nature who passionately externalizes a running, name-dropping commentary of his ideas on — well, it is a Greenaway film — sex and death. The director occasionally quotes Eisenstein aesthetically (and directly through clips) but otherwise offers his trademark barrage of raucous postmodernism: image overlays, colors desaturating before our eyes, split-screen triptychs, hyper-realized symbolism, green-screened backdrops, and other grandiose CGI effects — as well as, naturally, montage.
Rigorous and outrageous, Greenaway’s defiant approach to narrative only offers insight into his character, not Eisenstein’s.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Opens February 5, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Angelika Film Center