Movie Review: Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)
Oh, Peter Greenaway. What might you give us is you cared just a little about narrative and a little less about vomit and other forms of bodily excretion?
“Eisenstein in Guanajuato” is set in 1931 in, yes, Guanajuato, Mexico, where Sergei M. Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck of Finland, who’s good), the acclaimed Soviet director behind “Battleship Potemkin” as well as “Strike” and “October” (or “10 Days That Shook the World”), is at work on his next great project. But it’s the one that undoes him. Why does it undo him? From Greenaway you get a sense that maybe Eisenstein didn’t work hard enough (or at all), maybe he had too much sex (for a change), maybe his producers—Upton Sinclair’s wife, Mary (Lisa Owen) and her brother, Hunter S. Kimbrough (Stelio Savante, attempting an atrocious Southern accent)—were philistines who didn’t appreciate great art.
What is the project? According to this article, it’s meant to be “a six-part avant garde film spanning Mexican history and culture from pre-Conquest times through the 1910-20 revolution.” I hardly got that from Greenaway. I thought maybe it was on the recent Mexican revolution. Maybe.
There’s a lot of historical stuff Greenaway seems to bypass. You get a sense, for example, that the Mexican trip is part of a long, worldwide tour Eisenstein has been on, but I didn’t get he'd been on it for three years. I didn’t get that the original purpose was not only to show off Eisenstein to the world but for Eisenstein to learn how the rest of the world was making sound pictures. I didn’t get that Eisenstein was in trouble with Soviet filmmakers before he went on the trip—for not adhering to “socialist realism”—and not just because he seemed to be delaying his return.
Here are the film’s basics:
- In grand, white-suited pomposity, Eisenstein arrives at his five-star hotel and showers in front of the staff, including his Mexican guide Palamino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). He talks to his penis, telling it to behave. (Per Greenaway, lots of male full-frontal.)
- Eisenstein wanders the city but falls victim to Montezuma’s revenge; Cañedo cleans him up and puts him to bed. (More full-frontal.)
- Talk and flirtation between Eisenstein and Cañedo, who finally go to bed, with Cañedo taking the lead and Eisenstein suddenly shy. It turns out he’s a virgin. (Ditto.)
- The two in and out of bed, with various annoying people, particularly Sinclair and Kimbrough, interrupting, and with increasing talk about death and the Day of the Dead.
- Eisenstein forced to leave Guanajuato, and to leave his 250 miles of film footage in the hands of the philistines. It’s the 10 days that shook Eisenstein.
The movie is visually striking with beautiful sets and clever split-screens and triptychs, but it’s narratively limp. It’s mostly dialogue, and most of that is so-so—although I did love a line of Eisenstein’s on money: how it’s a new phenomenon; how idiots have a lot of it and great men have little, so what good is it? That made me smile.
Not enough. All play and no work makes “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” a dull film.