Thursday, April 26, 2012


Peter Greenaway, 1988
Starring: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards

Though this begins as one of Greenaway's most whimsical films, it surprisingly ends as one of his most misanthropic. Drowning by Numbers opens with a girl jumping rope and counting the names of stars up to number 100. It quickly moves to the elder Cissie Colpitts (Plowright), who drowns her drunk, adulterous husband in the bath while he is having a tryst with a younger woman in their home. She informs her daughter, also named Cissie Colpitts (Stevenson), and another younger Cissie Colpitts (Richardson), who may be her granddaughter or niece. They enlist the aid of Madgett (Hill), the love-starved coroner, to help them cover up the murder and ensure an accidental death certificate.

Things begin to spiral out of hand when Cissie #2 drowns her distracted, sexually-unfulfilling husband in the ocean when she realizes he has gotten too fat to swim properly. Madgett is forced to help them again, but makes it clear he expects a sexual exchange as part of the bargain. After the youngest Cissie marries her boyfriend and he threatens to reveal their crimes, she drowns him in the local pool while giving him swimming lessons. Madgett helps them again, but grows more demanding. Meanwhile, his eccentric son Smut, who alternates between making up elaborate games and obsessively counting everything, is growing more out of touch with reality.

Drowning by Numbers is a blackly comic, surreal blend of Greenaway's other films The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts. Like Draughtsman, this film returns to the quaint, countryside murder mystery and is populated by some thoroughly British characters. Like Zed, it is bursting with a barrage of lush, colorful visuals and a haunting, if repetitive score by Michael Nyman, which is based on Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, earlier used in Greenaway's The Falls. This enjoyable and endearing film is also Greenaway's most direct confrontation between the sexes, though many of his works visit the concept of women rising up against their oppressive male counterparts. Part fairy tale, part encyclopedia, and part game, Drowning by Numbers is a good place to start for anyone interested in Greenaway's works but unfamiliar with his overall experimental style.

This is also the most pastoral of Greenaway's films. Though several of his other movies concern gardens, the Suffolk countryside is shot with dizzying beauty by the great Sacha Vierny. Though it lacks the grandiose set pieces and elaborate costumes of earlier films, the lush countryside and elaborate games more than make up for this. The opening scene is shot at a house that borders an apple orchard and the detail is overwhelming. Like A Zed and Two Noughts, the rich color and obsessive detail is enhanced by careful lighting techniques. Greenaway states that he and Vierny used multiple sources of artificial light, so that very few shadows appear in the film and that "this often produced a surreal effect of trying to compete with God on his own lighting scheme." The usual careful framing is also present, borrowing visuals from Fellini's group shots, Lewis Carroll's game sequences, and Greenaway's usual nods to Dutch masters. Keep an eye out for Bruegel's "Children's Games," which makes an appearance.

Like Greenaway's other works, this is a film rife with themes. Numbers are of primary importance. This is introduced in the bizarre, anxious opening scene with the girl in the starred dressed counting to one hundred while she jumps rope. Smut counts and numbers everything with obsessive detail. This seems to stem from his father Madgett, who puts particular importance on the rules and numbering systems of his made up games and keeps a herd of sheep around because counting them brings him pleasure. If you pay close attention, numbers 1 to 100 are included on props throughout the film, though some are easier to spot than others. Three is of primary importance to both myth and fairytale and the three Colpitt women easily correspond to the three fates. The larger framework with its imaginative childhood games is also reminiscent of the "Three Billy Goats Gruff" story told in reverse. The three goats taunting the bridge troll are the three Colpitt women distracting the hairy, satyr-like Madgett from sexual conquest until they trick him to get what they want.

Sex is a major component of the film. In this film it is mercenary, manipulative, and un-erotic, but can also be an act of love and intimacy. In either case the frequent nudity feels normal and not exploitative, though it is usually quite graphic. As in The Draughtsman's Contract, there are references to fruit and gardens, but instead of Greenaway's frequent references to pregnancy and inheritance in some of his other works, there is the frequent mention of necrophilia. Water is almost constantly present and is symbolic of women, namely the three Colpitts, and constantly separates them from the men in the film. 

Though there is almost nothing about Drowning by Numbers that I personally dislike, several things might be jarring for unseasoned Greenaway viewers. For instance, there are many moments that seem to be absurd for the sake of it and make no connection to the larger narrative or symbolism of the film. There is also rampant misanthropy at work, which is unsettling in a film that begins full of childhood imagination, whimsy, and fairy tale leanings. It is clear that there is a distinctly derogatory view of men, who are all either fat, lazy, selfish, aimless dreamers, sex-crazed, or outright cruel. As a whole their stupidity saves none of them from the Colpitt women who first seemed pleasant but eventually allow their manipulative, sociopathic, and casually murderous intentions to be revealed. Regardless of this, like so many of Greenaway's other films, multiple viewings are both necessary and pleasurable.

This film comes recommended, though it is an acquired taste. It won an award for Best Artistic Contribution at Cannes in 1988. Drowning by Numbers is unfortunately unavailable on DVD. As far as I can tell, there has never been a region 1 DVD, only a VHS tape. There is a very out of print FilmFour region 0 DVD, which I am reviewing. It has a dark, somewhat muddy print and no extras other than a trailer. I believe this print is from an Australian source, like several other unavailable Greenaway films. There's an available region 2 Danish DVD, but it has the same dark print as the FilmFour release. For the desperate, there's also an 8-disc Australian region 0 boxset from Umbrella than contains 7 of Greenaway's early films, including this one, and a special features disc.

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