In 1930, world famous Russian director Sergei Eisenstein found himself in Mexico prepping for an unfinishable project that would end in disgrace. Leftfield British filmmaker Peter Greenaway takes this semi-exile and turns it into a creative orgy played lightning fast and loose as they come.
After three features including the renowned The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), Eisenstein was invited to Hollywood to try his luck. Despite mixing with the great and good of western culture, America’s anti-red shift saw his contract terminated. Unwilling to return home tail between his legs, the chance to make an independent film in Mexico took his fancy.
It’s here Greenaway steps in, starting with Eisenstein’s arrival in Guanajuato. Played by Elmer Bäck with a shock of wild hair and dazzling white suit, he explodes into the film. The opening minutes set the tone mixing crisp black and white with eye-popping colour, weaving in archive footage and constantly splitting the screen into three. It’s a brash, beautiful homage to Eisenstein’s own approach that sets the tempo running fast.
This opening barrage is not quick to die down either. The assault is maintained as he waltzes into his extravagant hotel for a lengthy stay. Spending most of his time here, in a nearby café or a large theatre, the camera rarely stays still. It’s often circling the action. The score keeps the march going, carefully choreographed to match ever shifting images. Greenaway lets loose with the look of his film. Shots spin and merge together, backdrops are superimposed and cuts occur with mechanised speed and precision. Considering he’s there to make a film, and indeed shot 250,000 feet of footage, the one thing we rarely ever see Eisenstein do is stand near a camera.
His collapse into the rhythms of Mexico occupies Greenaway’s time instead. In particular, Eisenstein’s losing battle with his own sexual urges comes to dominate. Early on he is left berating his penis over attractive male guide Cañedo (Luis Alberti). Soon enough, the two are in bed in a wonderfully witty scene that sees triumph marked with the planting of a red flag.
This symbolic gesture also denotes the turning point in the film. Such a pace is unsustainable without change in the narrative. It’s wearying to watch Bäck prancing around after a while. He’s a fast-talking hyper delight for the most part, but it’s a one dimensional performance. There’s nothing beyond crazy Eisenstein. This goes for Greenaway’s film as well.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato is like a sprinter running a marathon. It’s out the gates at a blistering pace that can’t be maintained. An exhaustingly exhilarating film, it’s fun all the way until fatigue sets in.
Director: Peter Greenaway
Writer: Peter Greenaway
Stars: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti, Maya Zapata
Runtime: 105 min
Country: Netherlands, Mexico, Finland, Belgium, France