Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway

An acclaimed study of 18th-century sexual intrigue set in an English country house, "The Draughtsman's Contract" staked out its director's central concerns with formal symmetries and parallels; each element of the plot was mirrored and repeated several times in order to create an elaborate, baroque structure which proved popular with critics and public alike. All in all, it was a superb if extremely dry meditation on the construction of perception, desire and of the difference of time past.Although "Contract" put the English art film back on the map, Greenaway's next three features did not meet with comparable success. "A Zed and Two Noughts" (1985), "The Belly of an Architect" (1987) and "Drowning by Numbers" (1988) are undermined in the eyes of some by their rigid formalism, though they remain intriguing and visually absorbing. "Belly" brought forth fully Greenaway's interest in obsession and its possibly violent manifestations, while "Drowning" kept audiences watching the screen in search of numbers while crazed puns peppered a story of three generations of women, all with the same name, who murdered their husbands by drowning them.The director returned to a more accessible form with "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" (1989), a visceral study of haute cuisine, adultery and murder centered on a riveting performance by Michael Gambon as a sadistic, foul-mouthed gangster. Thanks to its relatively conventional narrative and its violent, controversial imagery, "The Cook" brought Greenaway his first substantial recognition in the US. His "Death in the Seine," also released in 1989, was one of Greenaway's fine and pedantic catalogue films, a potently morbid taxonomy of all drowning victims in the Parisian river between 1795 and 1801 that ended up not being bought by British TV as promised.Greenaway followed with "Prospero's Books" (1991), a film which elicited a great variety of opinion, from claims of the work's near divinity as an intertextual late modernist revision of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" to a view of it as an airless work, a connoisseur's film, jam-packed with visual marginalia and pretense. Here the listing was of the 24 tomes the Bard's wizard brought with him to his island of exile. This prolific period was capped by "Darwin" (1992), a strenuous revision of the biopic genre, and "The Baby of Macon" (1993), another grim semi-satire set in an imaginary court of the Medicis in 17th century and the second part of a historical trilogy that started with "Prospero's Books."