The idea of a pioneering early-20th century modernist Russian filmmaker making a wild sojourn in post-revolutionary Mexico seems anomalous at first, yet formalist art-house British filmmaker Peter Greenaway brings this seemingly staid real-life persona vividly to life in his eccentric, deeply artistic, protean, homoerotic passion play, Eisenstein in Guanajuato. The film, nonetheless a bust with the jury when it premiered at Berlin last February, is greatly benefited by a furiously physical, ebullient, expressionist performance by Finnish actor Elmer Bäck (Where Once We Walked) as Sergei Eisenstein himself. The culture clash of the button-down, gray-suited, urban Russian Marxist intelligentsia mixing with laid-back, colorful, provincial Mexican post-revolutionaries alighted by indigenous, pre-Colombian ritual, sensibility, and custom is not entirely erased here in Greenaway’s painterly milieu, but his protagonist’s embrace of the local flavor comes to blur what barriers may have existed between the two. That’s not to say that, as depicted here, Eisenstein isn’t a fish out of water, what with his gleaming ivory suit; outsize frame; wild, unkempt mane; and generally overbearing disposition; nor that he doesn’t completely ingratiate himself with the local Guanajuato—a picturesque, neocolonial, baroque capital city once pivotal to the nation’s independence, which was prefigured by street protests over inequitable wealth distribution and where the uprising initially manifested itself at the Siege of the Alhondiga, that is now a World Heritage Site—populace.
Indeed, his arrival veritably cries, “Outsider,” as he descends the dusty Guanajuato plateau in a caravan of period convertibles—the setting is October 1931—bulging with camera equipment and suitcases and a film crew—primarily artistic co-conspirator Grisha Aleksandrov (Rasmus Slätis) and cinematographer Eduard Tisse (Jakob Öhrman)—ostensibly to execute an ambitious, episodic, romantic, culturally rich, revolutionary-style film project entitled ¡Que viva México!; the convertibles may not be named Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, but the pompous arrival threatens a distinct cultural invasion and the European himself seems as wide-eyed and excited about the possibilities as Columbus himself. Once ensconced at an opulent baroque luxury hotel—after being welcomed, much like Leon Trotsky himself five years later, by local internationale cultural and political ambassadors Diego Rivera (José Montini) and Frida Kahlo (Cristina Velasco Lozano)—the excitable Russian maestro seems as secure and contented with his surroundings as a king in his castle. But like an emperor without his clothes—once stripped naked in the shower in a spacious, clear glass enclosure, he seems as vulnerable and diffident as his penis, which he proudly exalts in song while scrubbing himself. Eisenstein’s audacious, consequential 10-day sojourn is just beginning, but it remains to be seen just who will be the conqueror, and, likewise, the conquered.
Not only does the heralded Eastern director’s arrival coincide with a period of personal and professional uncertainty—Eisenstein was in retreat from Hollywood where a teaming with Paramount Pictures turned to disappointment over a rejected screenplay he’d written and his Communist ideology, and in apparent exile from Stalin’s Russia for his pioneering modernist techniques that were contrary to prevailing social-realist artistic doctrine—but with considerable baggage—psychological, existential, and literal. His stay takes an immediate turn for the worse, though the spirited tourist-adventurer appears immune to any of its consequences. His first night, he takes an uninviting aside through a labyrinthian street tunnel via an adjacent alley—the serpentine, subterranean layout of much of the city’s streets was necessitated by the torrential flooding that nearly destroyed it—into an impoverished nocturnal netherworld of beggars and alike unsavory denizens in which he ends up prone and puking on himself that Greenaway delightfully turns into a hazy, phantasmagorical cultural immersion and initiation. By day, he’s stalked and haunted throughout the neocolonial streets by a band of menacing revolutionaries in full peasant regalia, complete with rifles, bandoliers, and sombreros. Meanwhile, his appalled maid discovers a prolific trove of compromising photographs of the prurient interest, including potentially displeasing lampoons of Jesus, that threaten to have the nonplussed director expelled not only from his luxury lodgings but from the offended Catholic country itself. Controversy never seems far from unorthodox thinkers and unconventional artists, and seems to alight to those in the public eye like a moth. Eisenstein’s travels and travails are not only of the immediate interest of his hosts, but are being espied across bold newspaper headlines from West to East; this concerns the bemused nonconformist about as much as a mosquito landing on his balcony while he sleeps and dreams.
What saves the wayward director from deep trouble are not Frida and Diego, who, for the most part, disappear from the film, but his guide and translator, appropriately named cultural attaché Palomino (an excellent and game Luis Alberti, The Golden Dream). The two form an intellectual, cultural, and adventurous bond that turns not only to the sensual but to the macabre. Their blithe yet brooding musings are amplified by excursions to the municipal cemetery and a museum of death. It’s not unlike Hamlet waxing on the literalness and symbolism of the human skull, and the dialogue moves swiftly. It doesn’t hurt that the Russian’s recess coincides with local celebrations of All Saints’ Day. “Here, death is very close,” Palomino muses. So is sex.
The pair’s complicit affair imperceptibly turns amorous under the host’s advances. Eisenstein appears to be a neophyte to such seductions, and much is made of the director’s bashfulness and lack of confidence in his fleshy physique, which he nonetheless displays in his suite as if he were a nude model to Peter Paul Rubens. Greenaway, no stranger to eroticism nor even homoeroticism, displays this bedroom dual with much bravura and little modesty—when the pair consummate their affair, it’s a personally symbolic reprisal for centuries of European colonialism. In this middle period, the film can be difficult, especially with Eisenstein surrounded by cheerful and beautiful Guanajuato maids, waitresses, etc., and disclosing his affairs in effusive nightly calls home to his future wife, Vera, but it is rewarding for those who can get through; some will not make it. Greenaway, who scored the art-house hit The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; as well as the erotic The Pillow Book; can be uncompromising in this way; he is, after all, working in the fashion of a serious and masculine artist. Here, that includes inventive storytelling complete with documentary-style interludes, split-screen symbolic imagery that enhances motifs and themes, and a swirling, 360-degree panoramic shot of the famed visitor entertaining Palomino, his wife, Concepción (Maya Zapata, Under the Same Moon, Bordertown), and children with amusing stories of Hollywood in the backyard garden of their home atop a hilltop high above the city, all set to a classical soundtrack. Story and art fancifully blend with the spontaneous arrival of All Saints’ Day.
The escandaloso asunto is eventually interrupted by the arrival of determined, haughty matriarch Mary Craig Sinclair (Lisa Owen, The Amazing Catfish), the wife of Upton, who, it turns out, is financing Eisenstein’s Mexican expedition at the behest of Charlie Chaplin—at this point, with international socialists deeply ingrained in Hollywood, Joseph McCarthy, though he had a predecessor at the time in Frank Pease, who had Eisenstein discredited and expelled while the socialist was collaborating with Paramount, would’ve had a field day—and her pesky, matter-of-fact, spirit-killing brother, Hunter S. Kimbrough (busy South African actor Stelio Savante, Poe), who’s overseeing the writer-producer’s ideological investment. With the Southern California producer even exchanging letters with Eisenstein’s true overseer, Stalin, the Russian’s exiled idyll is truly coming to a head. Not that he could care about the ramifications; the squandering of a massive budget for an epic foreign-film project only causes the pioneering filmmaker to wax on dreamily about his only true concern—his artistic obligations. All this drama goes on while he reclines, stands on, jumps on, or stalks about his poster bed at the center of his spacious, marble-floored accommodation in various states of torpor and inspired wakefulness, with and without Palomino at his side.
Indeed, it’s no wonder his financiers are so concerned. All the while, there seems to be precious little actual filmmaking going on—though in reality Eisenstein shot miles and miles of footage that Aleksandrov would turn into ¡Que viva México! decades later. When the crew catches a dramatic break when a natural disaster strikes outside of town, the listless director is loath to leave his room. Compelled to do so, while Tisse captures the unfolding action in a driving rain, an abandoned baby is placed in his lap; the resulting photo, with the visitor cradling the infant protectively, is front-page news the next day, with Eisenstein cast as an activist hero. In truth, the conflicted maestro is withering from reality and retreating into cinema, his metaphysical oasis. Whether he’s deserted Russia or been deserted by the motherland itself, it’s artistic license uncontrollable, but even a true dreamer intuitively discerns the constraints of the world, and that the jig is up. Upon his demonstrative, bittersweet farewell, as his caravan peels away on the Guanajuato city streets, Eisenstein, the man, and the myth, through Peter Greenaway’s magical lens, has truly been transformed.
(Eisenstein in Guanajuato is now available on DVD and Digital Download from Strand Releasing. Greenaway, currently filming Walking in Paris, about pioneering modernist Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi’s extensive walking trek though Europe as a young man in the early 20th century, has just announced a …Guanajuato follow-up, Eisenstein in Hollywood!)
© 2016 John Tyler/24 Hours