Beautifully baroque, Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching uncovers the hidden plot behind Rembrandt’s most famous painting. He’s got obscurity down to a fine art.
A Shot In The Dark by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (or even The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch) also played a starring role in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1982 film Passion. In fact, Godard and Greenaway’s interests are pretty similar; art, sex and image over story. But while Godard refracts The Night Watch into a fragmentary film within a film, Greenaway analyses every stroke of the brush, every dab of pigment to conjur up a fictional retelling of Rembrandt and the militiamen’s plot. Capriccio on canvas.
The first in Peter Greenaway’s series of films on Dutch masters, (the film even has its own accompanying documentary, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, in which each of the characters defends their role in the murderous conspiracy) Nightwatching dissects the Rijksmuseum’s shining glory with an eye sharper than a serpent’s tooth. The painting has the (mistaken) reputation for marking Rembrandt’s change in fortunes, a social gaffe which rapidly led the Dutch master into bankruptcy and disrepute, a myth Greenaway embellishes with great gusto. And finials on top.
With exquisite chiaroscuro lighting, Greenaway recreates Rembrandt’s world of ‘miles of painted darkness lit by spasms of light’ via a dramatic and suitably venereal colour theory – red, the colour of blood, yellow, the colour of piss. With its spotlights on cue and a wheelaround bed on 17th century pulleys and strings, the production is purposefully theatrical, its claustrophobic, airless stages breathing baroque beauty into every frame.
It’s a kind of ’80s baroque though, with lingering nudity and narrative nonsequiturs nostalgic for The Baby of Mâcon or The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. The rare outdoors scenes with billowing bedsheets and Friesian cows wandering cross-frame are more Draughtsman’s Contract though, only lacking the Michael Nyman score. Eschewing the narrative urges of his most recent films, Greenaway it seems is back in the fringe.
The tortuous story holding the fetching frames loosely together is a splintered Rembrandt biography, plotting the artist’s fall from happily married father and bright young thing to penurious philandering widower. It’s also a dramatisation of the making of The Night Watch and the enigmatic clues Rembrandt hides in it, subtly exposing the Amsterdam militiamen’s murderous conspiracy. It’s no ordinary biopic though – no Leiden childhood for this miller’s son, no final-reel deathbed revelation. Instead, the development is traced through his women; his marriage to guilder-guarding, tuberculosis-suffering wife Saskia van Uylenburg, his erotic affair with his son’s nurse Geertje and his love affair with young maid Hendrickje.
The narrative is also dotted with contemporary intrigue – homosexuality, financial ruin, child abuse and murder, although it’s a hard job to join all the dots together, the story at times as obscure as the dark courtyard from which the Kloveniers emerge. But with the ever-delightful Natalie Press playing a nine-year-old, characters philosophising over the honesty and dishonesty of art, Martin Freeman delivering sardonic asides to camera, there is always something to stimulate the eye or the mind; Hendrickje licking Rembrandt’s gunpowdered eye is particularly evocative.
But the Rembrandt/Greenaway conflation is disconcerting. Rembrandt may produce his tableaux as if making a film; costuming, rehearsing and editing with his familiar crew. Greenaway may even lovingly recreate Rembrandt’s painterly chiaroscuro style, but the characters in Nightwatching are impotent shadows, unable to engage on an emotional plane. Not helped by a tumid script, requiring them to infodump as much plot as Rembrandt daubs paint. Stippled with empty heroics, the audience is left wondering if Greenaway, like his alter ego, isn’t just filming for the pleasure of humiliating his characters.
A tangled web of images and ideas, Nightwatching is all the same a glorious return to Greenaway form, as infuriating as it is enlightening. Ingeniously riffing on Rembrandt’s masterpiece, it’s a fictional mosaic which, as Godard said, is full of holes and badly-filled spaces. But, like the gilded angel emerging from the shadows, radiant enough to really dazzle.
Nightwatching is released in the UK on 26th March 2010.