“I am a boxer for the freedom of cinematic expression,” intones Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) in an early scene in Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, about the making of Que Viva Mexico! Eisenstein never finished what he set out to accomplish; the freedom of cinematic expression was too time-consuming a process for those in charge. But nearly 100 years removed from Battleship Potemkin, modern audiences well aware of the director’s influence on cinema may not bat an eye at his proclamation. More important than the boast itself may be that Eisenstein makes it soon after appearing naked and sexually aroused by his guide, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). The declaration is on the one hand a way for the character to orient himself on his mission to make a film in Mexico after having failed to do so in the United States (this despite endorsements from Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney and numerous other figures). It is also a chance for Greenaway to indulge in Eisenstein’s and his own underappreciated genius, and his own queer revisionist approach.

But the line has one more purpose. What follows is a cut to a screen split vertically in three, a technique that Greenaway employs liberally throughout the film, sometimes repeating the same image and other times incorporating stills of historical figures or sequences from Eisenstein’s films. Moreover, it comes at the end of a relentless, flashy introduction that uses, in addition to the triptych, rapid, disorienting editing, voiceovers, swooping, spinning camera movements and racy humor, all amidst a colorful, opulent display of the interiors and exteriors of the socialist country. Something distinctly fictional is readily apparent about the film in Eisenstein’s speech, tone and actions, thanks to a bravura performance by Elmer Bäck, and indeed Eisenstein in Guanajuato is mostly uninterested with a historically accurate portrayal. Greenaway is essentially paying himself a compliment, through his depiction of an agreed-upon master.

A streak of narcissism runs throughout Greenaway’s work – five minutes of Rembrandt’s J’Accuse makes that clear – so this is hardly surprising. More notable than this narcissism is that – and this is never easy to say about any egomaniac – he earns it. Greenaway is well-learned in painting and cinema and does his best to subsume language to image, or at least foreground his own awareness on the occasion that the former usurps the latter. Hence, the film has a handful of virtuoso sequences that range from a camera orbiting the action (or seeming to) that enliven multiple conversations and portray them as complicated moments. Twice, a lens distorts a camera-view circumventing the room, causing sections to gradually transition from concave to convex and back again. One long shot of Eisenstein and Palomino standing at a gate has the walls appearing to run out, away from the camera, but the whole shot flattens until it is revealed to be a single parallel structure running the length of the frame, taken from a head-on perpendicular angle. In another sequence, as Eisenstein explains the process of movie making and his many delays, the camera slowly tracks to the left and a series of very slow wipes, grant characters a double presence and create impossible space without ever appearing to break any rules.

What end do Greenaway’s techniques serve? Greenaway doesn’t seem interested in Que Viva Mexico, and neither does his Eisenstein, whose late, sexual coming-of-age is the real story. Perhaps it all allows the artist a chance to discover himself, through the colors of the country, all reds and bright oranges and the nearly perpetual daylight, the glamorous architecture and positively decadent interior design, and the reality of a socialist republic older and more successful than Russia’s. Greenaway’s methods perhaps reflect Eisenstein’s grasp of his surrounding and life, from overwhelming confusion to, in the scrolling series of wipes, complete comprehension.

Greenaway’s queer revisionism is an important antidote to commonplace historicity, but it is both his means and his end. This forcefulness and didacticism can overpower the drama, and at times the film seems to address other issues not to shine a light on them so much as to offer a self-aware remark on its own obsession. Such gestures are not quite value-neutral; it’s indicative of Greenaway’s mode of filmmaking in general, and thereby an invitation to resume the debate regarding his aesthetic merits that have tapered off significantly over the years. Let’s get ready to rumble.

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