Peter Greenaway’s first film in eight years is every bit as enigmatic and tantalizing as the painting it takes its name from, Rembrandt van Rijn’s “The Night Watch.” Completed in 1642, this work in oils is considered by many critics to be the Dutch master’s greatest and most mysterious work.
Finding hidden meaning in a painting has almost become a cinematic cliche of late, but Greenaway’s “Nightwatching” makes for much more intellectually rigorous and intriguing viewing than “The Da Vinci Code.” That film hatched a grand-scale religious conspiracy; “Nightwatching” concentrates on the enigma behind the painting — a group portrait of 34 wealthy militia-men captured in motion — and its painter.
But then the director has always been like that. His works take the viewer on a journey of the intellect — his intellect. To see “Nightwatching” is to witness Greenaway commune with the spirit of Rembrandt. In some parts he expresses admiration for his subject; in others he inflicts pain and punishment on him.
The opening scene of “Nightwatching” sees the painter stripped, beaten and screaming, questioning the meaning of art and life. It’s a classic Greenaway treatment, for in his films, philosophizing and gore come hand-in-hand.
In Tokyo to promote the movie, 65-year-old Greenaway says that the answer to all the mysteries of “The Night Watch” are in the painting itself, which is impossible to separate from the personality and mind-set of its painter.
“You have to bear in mind that by the time he was 26, Rembrandt was an artistic pop star on par with say, Mick Jagger. And when an artist reaches the summit that early, he becomes an arrogant, gloriously ill-mannered oaf.
“Mick Jagger spat at the press, he shouted, he swaggered, he was often unbearably disgusting. Rembrandt was the same way. He knew no fear. He was wealthy, he maintained a huge household of people ready to do his slightest bidding, he owned his personal printing machine and had money in the biggest banks in Italy. His prints were seen all over Europe. And his peak lasted for a whole decade. He would be confident and foolhardy enough to do something like launch an accusation (that militia-men were running a child brothel and committed a murder) against the cream of Amsterdam society.”
Born in Wales, Greenaway trained in London as a painter and muralist and has a special appreciation for Renaissance painting and the Dutch masters. It’s hardly surprising that Greenaway’s works are always visually splendid, lavish with his particular vision rather than an adherence to any filming technique.
His narratives, however, are fraught with mystery and littered with ribald and barbaric jokes, tortured plot twists and references to art history.
They also bear the stigma of his caustic but barely controlled rage. Take Greenaway’s most famous work, “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (1989). In it, the thief discovers his wife is having an affair and orders his underlings to tear up a book on the French Revolution (the lover’s favorite reading material) and cram the pages one by one down the man’s throat with a pointed spindle. The whole scene was unspeakably cruel, but also sublime in its execution — a combination that Greenaway has been exploring since his earliest short films.
Now, almost 20 years later and almost a decade since his last feature film (“8 1/2 Women”) “Nightwatching” shows Greenaway in pensive mood.
The director’s own mixture of rage and mirth has been muted to accommodate that of the Dutch painter, portrayed here as having a sizable share of both. Greenaway’s fascination with Rembrandt is distant and cerebral, but the detachment often crumbles away and we see his own personality merging with that of his subject.
In parts, Rembrandt functions as Greenaway’s alter ego, giving his all to art and succeeding in winning public support, only to be betrayed later by his own maddening acuity and cleverness.
Although Greenaway has been critically lauded through the years, his films, difficult and often brutally erotic, have never translated into big box office. “But I’m also a businessman,” he says. “I don’t think one can produce art, make a living from it and not have a head for business. Of course, Rembrandt was much better at business than I could hope to be, but then it was his wife who took care of the accounts and managed his career.”
Indeed, “Nightwatching” shows a Rembrandt (played with glorious, hot-blooded abandonment by Englishman Martin Freeman) entirely dependent on his level-headed wife, Saskia (Eva Birthistle), to manage his household, consisting of his followers and a multitude of servants, as well as his accounts, their savings, and respective families. Their discussions deal with the minutiae of the everyday. In voice-over, Rembrandt wonders if the union is based on love or convenience.
Rembrandt ponders the question as his wife gives birth to their son, but the next minute he’s begging her to let him sketch her in all her sweat and pain (“right between your legs!”). That’s what the painter was like at 36 — flighty, boyish, romantic and a little ridiculous.
Saskia is necessarily maternal and forgiving, placing her husband’s art and business above her own needs (we don’t find out what they are), advising, reprimanding and consoling him until her demise, shortly after giving birth.
Greenaway points out that “every good artist needs a great manager.” In this role, Saskia excelled.
“The Dutch are businesspeople and are not ashamed of money. During the period Rembrandt lived and worked and his career reached peak levels, Amsterdam had become the richest city in Europe. He wouldn’t have got so many commissions otherwise. The rich hired him to paint their portraits and that was his main source of income. That was what the ‘The Night Watch’ had been about — the rich and powerful getting together and posing in a group portrait.”
The oil painting is colossal in size (363 × 467 cm) and depicts a company of men. Among them is the captain gesturing, ordering the lieutenant to prepare them to march. Capt. Frans Banning Cocq of the local militia commissioned Rembrandt to paint a military portrait of himself and his men — wealthy traders, prosperous merchants and aristocrats.
In the movie, Rembrandt chides his subjects as “the privileged class playing at being soldiers!” and seizes the opportunity on canvas to ridicule. The two principal figures in the foreground, for example, are eyeing each other, the shadow of one’s hand painted over the other’s groin in what is intended to be a comment on homosexual lust. Also in view are two girls, depicted in the movie as orphans held captive in a child’s brothel run by one of the militia.
Artistically, Greenaway prefers Johannes Vermeer to Rembrandt, but “the way Rembrandt used artificial lighting, the stark contrast between light and shadow, the way people’s faces and objects seem to materialize out of a pitch-black darkness” were factors that he as a filmmaker identified with. “Because in filmmaking, first there is darkness before we create light.”
One of the most revealing aspects of “Nightwatching” is seeing Rembrandt at work — he decides how his clients pose, discusses what costume they should wear and even draws them into his “costume room” to pick and choose among the jackets, capes and hats. Often this was a trap to get them to wear more theatrical garb. In his mind, Rembrandt assigned roles to his portrait figures and embodied them on canvas.
“Apparently, he pissed off a lot of people,” laughs Greenaway. “But now I’m struck by the eloquence of the portraits. They were prickly, revolting, depicting the rich in all their corpulence and wealth. They’re very stimulating to look at.”
In real-life, some clients refused to pay Rembrandt once the painting was finished. In “The Night Watch,” one merchant tries to pay the painter off with a crop of roses wilting in his warehouse.
Ultimately, the centerpiece of “Nightwatching” is not the painting but the painter and his life.
After completing what would be his most ambitious work, Rembrandt’s commissions dwindled and his household downsized. With Saskia gone, Rembrandt becomes plagued with self-doubt and misery, and plunges into an affair with a maidservant who “stank to the high heavens!” Later, he kicks her out and weds another maid, 18 at the time.
“What was this union about?” asks Greenaway rhetorically. “Well, for Rembrandt, he was putting off the inevitable — decline and death. For the maid, it was probably stability, a roof over her head and enough to eat. She also felt maternal and protective toward him. Their love story is not all that different from his bond with Saskia: sex, comfort and a financial arrangement.”
But does the director think the story strayed from his originally stated intention to recount Rembrandt’s supposed uncovering of a 400-year-old murder?
“Not at all. After all, what’s there to talk about really, except death and sex? These are both non-negotiable factors in life, which is what makes them so compelling. According to Balzac, the third factor is money, but any fool can have money. It’s just a defense against sex and death, anyway. As far as I’m concerned, the role of myself as a filmmaker is to point this out and decorate the scenery a bit.”
“Nightwatching” opens Jan. 12.