Drowning by Numbers

UK/Netherlands 1988, 119 mins
Director: Peter Greenaway

A contemporary review
Peter Greenaway has become his own foremost exegete, although it is not yet clear whether this career move springs from a frustration that most English critics have little taste for decoding the intricacies of his plotting or merely from a wish to add a further level of absurdity to those already ingrained in his films. Drowning by Numbers arrives accompanied by a twenty-six-minute TV trailer, entitled Fear of Drowning, in which Greenaway the deadpan critic offers a faintly amused analysis of the structures, patterns and motifs in the feature itself: the endless sets of three (three Cissies, three drownings, three rebuffed seductions, three communal games), the number count from 1 to 100, the derivation of character names from the ‘famous last words’ of assorted luminaries, the painterly roots of certain key images, and so on. Its strengths as inspired, state-of-the-art promotion for the release of the film aside, this exegesis turns out to be almost entirely superfluous, since the film itself carefully foregrounds its own mechanisms and devices: no Greenaway film since The Falls has laid its organising principles so bare.

Drowning by Numbers rests on the same absurdist premises as Greenaway’s other work, but it is all but devoid of the poetic mysteries and ambiguities that have sometimes suggested a secret kinship between Greenaway and Raul Ruiz as latter-day surrealists. This is a film of remorseless, Cartesian logic, in which every motive is open for inspection and every conflict can be reduced to the terms of a tug-of-war. If Greenaway’s narrative features have represented a gradual etiolation of narrative, from the density of The Draughtsman’s Contract (where the release version was a digest of a film originally much longer) to the inconsequential off-screen chicaneries of The Belly of an Architect, then Drowning by Numbers represents the point where the minimal exigencies of storytelling blur into the ‘purer’, non-narrative structures of earlier films like Vertical Features Remake and The Falls – the very films, as it happens, in which Cissie Colpitts got her first name checks.

Greenaway himself cheerfully describes the film as a sardonic morality play: ‘Drowning by Numbers is a black and comic fairy-tale for adults, half invented by children who are innocently obsessed with sex and death – especially death. It is a poetic, amoral tale told morally to support the belief that the good are seldom rewarded, the bad go largely unpunished and the innocent are always abused’. This makes it sound like the ironic and effetely intellectual English counterpart to an ebullient Russ Meyer sex film, and it’s true that Greenaway’s schema of strongwilled women, unprepossessing men, marital strife and sexualised landscapes shares quite a few underlying assumptions with Meyer’s parodies of Thornton Wilder. But Greenaway’s left-liberal proclivities generate a ‘world’ without any of the moral certainties that Meyer so gleefully deflates, and Drowning by Numbers is finally serenely indifferent to its characters’ moral plusses and minuses. If the film’s post-Darwinian view of female ruthlessness and male helplessness can be said to have a ‘moral’ thrust at all, then it is simply the flipside of the amoral, voyeuristic pleasures of Greenaway’s TV short Making a Splash, which showed people of all ages and genders ‘at home’ in water: a bleak, existential vision in which the only ‘moral’ poles are those labelled ‘swimming’ and ‘drowning’. And since this is Greenaway’s most Beaubourg-esque film, the one whose inner workings are most self-consciously displayed on its surface, it follows that it produces the most nakedly explicit images to illustrate those poles, from the flaccid penises of the drowning men to the inviolable confederation of Cissies, by way of Smut’s twin desires to virilise death and devirilise himself.

The effectiveness or otherwise of Greenaway’s work as cinema seems to owe more than is commonly recognised to his collaborations with actors. The performances in Greenaway films are often written off as mere adjuncts to the general patterns of symmetry and asymmetry, but the Olympian detachment that hovers around Greenaway’s grand designs is frequently offset by actors who contrive to ‘humanise’ characters written as little more than mouthpieces for attitudes and epigrams. The emotional nullity of A Zed and Two Noughts (ostensibly a film about grief and coming to terms with inevitable decay) was partly attributable to the film’s pride in its own artifices, but also partly to the director’s and actors’ failures to generate palpable feelings of loss. Equally, the wallowing male self-pity of The Belly of an Architect (which agonises over the essential sterility of male creativity: the phantom ‘pregnancy’ that turns out to be a malignant tumour) never succeeds in maximising the emotional weight of Brian Dennehy’s heroic performance because the director is unable or unwilling to make more of Chloe Webb’s Louisa Kracklite than a cypher for mockingly natural fecundity-a cypher, moreover, who isn’t even allowed her own close-ups.

By contrast, Drowning by Numbers finds Greenaway back at work with English actors for the first time since The Draughtsman’s Contract, and slipping easily into a ‘theatrical’ idiom in which both the director and his players seem comfortable. Hence the potency of Cissie 1’s summary of the reasons for drowning her husband, the charm of Madgett’s scout-masterish enthusiasm for impossible games, the acid cruelty of the sexual oneupmanship games between Cissie 3 and Bellamy. The sheer presence of actors like Joan Plowright, Bernard Hill and Joely Richardson adds flesh to the bones of Greenaway’s caricatures, creating moments of depth in scenes that pull all the right emotional triggers. Of course, Greenaway the iconoclast also delights in outraging the good manners of the theatrical tradition on which these ‘human’ vignettes depend. Just as one never expected to see a veteran character actor like Bryan Pringle playing a nude sex scene, so it comes as a mild shock to find Joan Plowright drowning him in a sordid tin bath. There is an element in Greenaway that is close to Joe Orton.

In the accompanying article [see Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1988], Thomas Elsaesser argues for seeing Greenaway’s work in a wider context than the normal auteurist perspective, which inevitably reduces judgments to subjective likes and dislikes. It is, indeed, both possible and desirable to relate Greenaway’s films to other work in contemporary cinema and theatre, but it is also impossible to avoid the insistently self-referential quality that permeates everything he does. His close collaborations with Michael Nyman (here developing variations on Mozart that he began in The Falls), his on-going partnership with Sacha Vierny in the quest for transcendentally surreal images, the pointless and endless elaboration of the ‘Greenaway mythology’ – these are all the essential signs of work that aggressively defines itself as sui generis. Just as much as Terence Davies, Derek Jarman or Phil Mulloy, Greenaway works in isolation and tries to turn his antipathy towards mainstream British culture into a strength. As long as this situation obtains, Greenaway dooms himself to constructing weird mixtures of theatricalised passion and avant-garde film poetry, mixtures that can only be sold under the brand name ‘Greenaway’. As such mixtures go, Drowning by Numbers is his most considerable entertainment for some time: an autumnal pleasure dome, with caves of ice.
Tony Rayns, Monthly Film Bulletin, October 1988

Directors: Peter Greenaway, Vanni Corbellini
Production Company: Allarts Enterprises
Producer: Paul Trybits
Script: Peter Greenaway

Peter Greenaway, Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson

UK 1988
26 mins

Directed by: Peter Greenaway
Production Companies: Allarts Enterprises, VPRO, Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, Elsevier-Vendex Film Beheer, Channel Four
Assistance: Progrès Film, Recorded Releasing, Movies Filmproductions, prokino-Filmproduktion, BAC Films
Producers: Kees Kasander, Denis Wigman
Production Manager: Evelien Jansen
Production Co-ordinator: Alison Owen
Production Co-ordinator (Netherlands): Eljo Embregts
Production Assistant: Jurgen Ambrosius
Assistant Directors: Gerrit Martijn, Peter Jaques
2nd Assistant Director: Chris Martin
Continuity: Marietta de Vries
Casting: Sharon Howard-Field
Screenplay: Peter Greenaway
Creative Adviser: Walter Donohue
Director of Photography: Sacha Vierny
Camera Operator: Adam Rodgers
Stills Photography: Stephen Morley
Pyrotechnics: Derek Langley
Editor: John Wilson
Production Designers: Ben van Os, Jan Roelfs
Set Dresser: Constance de Vos
Set Dresser (Netherlands): Allard Becker
Environmental Sculptures: Daniel Harvey, Alex Vermeulen
Costume Supervisor: Heather Williams
Wardrobe Mistress: Dien van Straalen
Chief Make-up: Sara Meerman
Hairdresser: Mary Sturgess
Rostrum Camera Titles: Frameline
Music Composed and Conducted by: Michael Nyman
Musicians: Michael Nyman Band
Musician (Violins): Alexander Balanescu, Jonathan Carney, Miranda Fulleylove, Rosemary Furniss, Briony Shaw, Jackie Shave
Musician (Violas): Kate Musker, Joe Rappaport
Musician (Cellos): Tony Hinnigan, Andrew Shulman
Musician (Double Bass): Robin McGee
Musician (Clarinet/Bass Clarinet): David Fuest
Musician (Soprano/Alto Sax): John Harle
Musician (Alto Sax): David Roach
Musician (Tenor/Baritone Sax/Piccolo): Andrew Findon
Musician (Trumpet/Flugelhorn): John Wilbraham
Musician (French Horn): Michael Thompson
Musician (Bass Trombone): Steve Saunders
Musician (Piano): Michael Nyman
Music Producer: David Cunningham
Music Recording: Bob Butterworth
Sound Recording: Garth Marshall
Additional Sound (Netherlands): Lucas Boeke
Sound Transfers: Hackenbacker Sound & Video
Dubbing Mixer: Peter Maxwell
Sound Editor: Chris Wyatt
Dialogue Editors: Bridget Reiss, Sarah Vicker, Shirley Shaw, Heather Holden
Additional Sound Effects: Tony Fish
Sound Effects Treatments: Nigel Heath
Sound Effects Editor: Trevor Holland
Foley Artists: Beryl Mortimer, Bill Garlick, Felicity Cottrell
ADR/Foley Recording: Ted Swanscott
Stunt Co-ordinator: Peter Brayham
Entomologist: John Young

Joan Plowright (Cissie Colpitts 1)
Juliet Stevenson (Cissie Colpitts 2)
Joely Richardson (Cissie Colpitts 3)
Bernard Hill (Henry Madgett)
Jason Edwards (Smut)
Bryan Pringle (Jake)
Trevor Cooper (Hardy)
David Morrissey (Bellamy)
John Rogan (Gregory)
Paul Mooney (Teigan)
Jane Gurnett (Nancy Gill)
Kenny Ireland (Jonah Bognor)
Michael Percival (Moses Bognor)
Joanna Dickins (Mrs. Hardy)
Janine Duvitski (Marina Bellamy)
Michael Fitzgerald (Mr 70 Van Dyke)
Edward Tudor-Pole (Mr 71 Van Dyke)
Natalie Morse (skipping girl)
Arthur Spreckley (Sid, the gravedigger)
Ian Talbot (police detective)
Roderic Leigh (policeman)
Vanni Corbellini (The Hare)
José Berg (skipping girl’s mother)

UK/Netherlands 1988
119 mins

Please note that for the screenings on 19 and 27 November we will now present a brand new 4K restoration courtesy of Film 4 and approved by Peter Greenaway. The screening on Sunday 23 October will be presented on 35mm, as originally advertised.

A Zed & Two Noughts
Tue 18 Oct 18:10; Sat 5 Nov 17:40; Sat 12 Nov 17:40; Mon 21 Nov 20:40; Sun 27 Nov 12:15
Peter Greenaway: Frames of Mind Season Introduction
Wed 19 Oct 18:10
The Belly of an Architect
Wed 19 Oct 20:30; Fri 18 Nov 18:20; Tue 22 Nov 18:10; Sat 26 Nov 15:30
The Falls
Sat 22 Oct 13:50; Sun 6 Nov 14:40
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Sun 23 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Justin Johnson, Lead Programmer); Sat 12 Nov 14:55; Mon 28 Nov 17:50
Drowning by Numbers
Sun 23 Oct 18:00; Sat 19 Nov 14:30; Sun 27 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway Shorts Programme 1
Mon 24 Oct 18:10; Thu 10 Nov 20:40
Experimental Sound and Vision: Found Sounds, Lyrical Loops and Landscapes
Thu 27 Oct 18:15; Thu 17 Nov 18:15 (+ intro by author and musician David Toop)
Prospero’s Books
Tue 1 Nov 17:40; Sun 20 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway: Pioneer of Cinema
Sat 5 Nov 12:00-17:00
The Unreliable Narrator: Adventures in Storytelling, Documentary and Misinformation
Sun 6 Nov 12:40; Fri 25 Nov 21:00
A TV Dante: Cantos 1-8
Tue 15 Nov 18:20
The Baby of Mâcon
Wed 16 Nov 20:30; Fri 25 Nov 18:00; Mon 28 Nov 20:30
The Pillow Book
Fri 18 Nov 20:30; Thu 24 Nov 20:30; Tue 29 Nov 17:40
8½ Women
Sun 20 Nov 12:50; Wed 30 Nov 20:35

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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