One seems to forget that Peter Greenaway has been prophesying the death of cinema (for well over a decade now) after watching his visually sumptuous new film, Goltzius and the Pelican Company, which sees the auteur in top form, combining his arresting visionary panache with his signature taboo baiting subject matter in the realm of the high brow. The subject matter is a hard sell, and those unfamiliar or unaccustomed to Greenaway’s unclassifiable narratives (or lack thereof) will most likely be as baffled as ever, but fans of the director and/or offbeat, striking cinema will hopefully embrace one of the infrequent working Greenaway’s best films to date.
Hendrick Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr), a late 16th century Dutch printer and engraver of erotic prints, takes his employees, known as the Pelican Company, to visit the Margrave of Alsace (F. Murray Abraham). He convinces (or, seduces, rather) the Margrave into funding the Pelican Company with a printing press, with which they will publish gloriously adult illustrated copies of the Old Testament of the Bible and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. To waylay the Margrave’s reluctance, a deal is struck between them, and the Pelican Company must agree to entertain his court for six nights while reenacting stories that depict six sexual taboos from the Bible.
The Margrave, who has recently married a young woman he impregnated, Isadora (Maaike Neuville), famously has an open court that professes to honor the free speech of its denizens, a right that is quickly tested when the conservative religious voices of the court immediately take issue with the graphic sexual nature of the Company’s reenactments. From the incestuous tale of Lot and his daughters, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Joseph and Potiphar, and the surprise addition of a tale from the New Testament (John the Baptist and Salome), sexual couplings and social mores will determine the punishment and deaths of several members of the Pelican Company, not to mention the possibility of the cancellation of the Margrave’s agreement to fund the printing press.
Obviously, a lot of work went into Goltzius and the Pelican Company during post production. As Ramsey Nasr narrates to us intermittently, resembling a Dutched up Eddie Izzard, cursive handwriting scrolls across the screen, and a continual shadowy, ripple effect glances across the screen, as if we’re peering into a lazily stirred cauldron. F. Murray Abraham gives his most engaging performance in recent memory, a hypocritical Margrave who we meet during his daily ritual of shitting in public. Greenaway’s interests are on full display here, the constant intermingling of the Sacred and Profane recalls what Pasolini might have done with an adaptation of the Bible by the Marquis de Sade (though Greenaway doesn’t stray into crassness as often or as vividly). With more erect penises and shaved vaginas than you can shake a stick at, it’s clear he’s also lost none of his interest in causing discomfort in the art house arena.
With its playful intermingling of performance and reality, one may be reminded of his controversial 1993 film The Baby of Macon (and one wonders how that rape scene would look now with all these fancy multimedia flourishes). But make no mistake, with a patience testing running time that eclipses two hours concerning a rather repetitive and indiscernible narrative, Goltzius and the Pelican Company still manages to be a moving, breathing entity that’s intelligent and entertaining. This is the second entry in Greenaway’s film series titled Dutch Masters (the first being the 2007 film Nightwatching). In 2016, we will see the next entry, focusing on Hieronymous Bosch, which is scheduled to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. Lofty and complicated, baffling and beautiful, Greenaway hasn’t lost his edge and Goltzius and the Pelican Company proves he is in top form.
Reviewed on January 05 at the 2013 Palm Springs Film Festival. – 128 Min