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This review is from: Drowning By Numbers DVD [Region 2 Import] (DVD)
A darkly surreal comedy about three women, three murders and a coroner forms the basis of one of director, Peter Greenaway's, most satisfying films to date. This funny, quirky, visually lavish film was made with funding from Channel 4, back in the halcyon days when they supported such artistic innovation, before the onset of Big Brother and other cultural atrocities.
Peter Greenaway is England's own David Lynch. Both men began as painters rather than film-makers. Both retain a strong sense of visual design that is clearly evident in their films. Both encourage a stylised, non-realistic approach from their actors, openly embracing the artificiality of the medium. Both take an elliptical, philosophical approach to film-making. Both employ surrealist humour, often juxtaposed with shocking or grotesque imagery. Both have long-standing relationships with composers whose work is a key element in their films (Angelo Badalamenti with Lynch, Michael Nyman with Greenaway). Both polarise audiences into those who love their work and those who hate it. All of these traits are perfectly displayed in 'Drowning by Numbers.'
The film centres around three women, a grandmother, mother and daughter, all called Cissy, their variously unsatisfactory husbands and, more especially, their growing relationships with the local coroner, Madgett, played by the great Bernard Hill, who is called in to investigate the husbands' deaths. Their story unfolds against some of Greenaway's most elaborate and beautifully staged sets and exquisitely filmed locations. As one would expect with Greenaway, the images on screen are gorgeous to look at.
The incidental characters are the most endearing in any of Greenaway's films. Madgett's young son, Smut, creates wonderful and bizarre games such as 'Dawn Card Castles,' 'Hangman's Cricket,' and 'Sheep and Tides,' in which you tether sheep along the sea shore and note how they react to the incoming and outgoing of the tides. And then there's my personal favourite, the skipping girl who names the stars.
Numbers occur throughout the film, which presents a count from 1 to 100, with numbers sometimes appearing on various props, on the backs of runners, or in dialogue from the characters. Having watched the film several times, I always find myself drawn into the game, attempting to spot all the numbers. I haven't succeeded yet. Why are the numbers there? Are they important? I have no idea. For me, they're just an additional element to the overall fun of watching the film. Fun may seem a strange word to use in reference to a film about multiple murders, and one that does include dark moments and images, but fun it is. Maybe it's just my peculiarly warped sense of humour. Actually, I think it's more to do with Peter Greenaway's peculiar genius.
Some dismiss Greenaway's films as pretentious, arty nonsense and it's easy enough to see why. They will never be to everyone's taste. Personally, as a painter myself, as a lover of the surreal, and of cinema that presents vastly more interest than the average Hollywood blockbuster, I rate Peter Greenaway, along with David Lynch and Lindsay Anderson, as one of my all-time favourite directors, and 'Drowning by Numbers' as one of his finest films.