In 1931, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (Elmer Back) trekked to America to work in Hollywood. The volatile director did not do well with his West Coast peers and, before he returned to the Soviet Union, he journeyed to Mexico to make an independent film financed by radical author Upton Sinclair. Things do not go smoothly for the man who created “Battleship Potemkin” and “Alexander Nevsky”, resulting in some 250 miles of unedited footage by “Eisenstein in Guanajuato.”
Anyone who has seen a Peter Greenaway (my first encounters with the auteur’s works were “Drowning By Numbers (1988),” “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover (1989)” and “Prospero’s Books”) can recognize the director’s style with elaborate sets, complicated camera work and surreal points of view. “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” is, if anything, a Greenaway film.
The titular filmmaker had a turbulent career inside and outside the Soviet Union. Greenaway examines that almost idyllic time for Eisenstein - he was rejected by Hollywood and had yet to return to Mother Russia. His grand plans in making a natural film – no lighting, sets or professional actors. “E in G,” though, is not about his making his Mexican masterpiece, which was never made.
What the film is about, to me, is the liberation of Eisenstein’s mind and spirit as he, first, intellectualizes with his guide, Palomino Canedo (Luis Alberti). As their relationship deepens, it gets physical, giving Greenaway the opportunity to explore the homoerotic side of Eisenstein’s life and his sexual education by his guide.
The prolonged sex scenes between Sergei and Palomino are combined with sumptuous sets and camera in full, often dizzying, motion. (I started to suffer from vertigo when, in one scene, the camera moved, non-stop, around and around the characters as they copulate.) The characters are more caricature than realistic, though Elmer Back does capture the wild-haired look of Eisenstein. But, the actor gives a performance that reminds of Roberto Benigni without the mirth.
“Eisenstein in Guanajuato” is not my cup a tea, but you have to applaud Greenaway’s style, attention to the details and passion for his subject matter. I give it a B-.
Writer/director Peter Greenaway conjectures why the style of the early works of a great Russian film director were so different from the later ones and lands on the film he was never allowed to finish, "Que Viva Mexico." From 1929 to 1931, Sergei Eisenstein (Finnish actor Elmer Bäck) traveled outside Stalinist Russia and was exposed to the leading intellectuals of Europe and the Hollywood film community. But everything really changed when he delved into sex and death with his Mexican guide Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti) in the 'ten days that shook' "Eisenstein in Guanajuato."
British director Peter Greenaway, trained as a painter, had his heyday in the 80's with films like "The Draughtsman's Contract" and the notorious "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," but his films haven't seen much in the way of U.S. distribution since 1996's "The Pillow Book." His unique visual style is carefully composed of rich, painterly tableaux, his themes encompassing puzzles, murder, architecture, sex and death. They are all evident here, yet it is difficult to take "Eisenstein in Guanajuato" entirely seriously.
Eisenstein arrives in Mexico to shoot his latest film financed by American author Upton Sinclair. He is greeted by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, tailed by three bandistas. He is like a child in a playground, discovering the delights of having his shoes, which he wears sockless, polished, or eating a banana as a prostitute offers her wares. He is fascinated by a blind bell ringer in native headdress and delights in the Mexican Day of the Dead. Cañedo advises the man he calls a virgin 'you've been introduced to death in Mexico, now to sex...' Eisenstein, who's been stashing homoerotic doodles in his red suitcase, cowers under covers at the sight of Cañedo's exposed genitalia.
Elmer Bäck's clownish portrayal of Eisenstein, while backed somewhat by historical accounts, is uncannily reminiscent of John C. Reilly in schmo mode. Noting that he was only fourteen at the time of the Russian Revolution he so famously chronicled, Greenaway's Eisenstein is a child on the verge of maturation. We see scant evidence of Eisenstein and his cinematographer Edouard Tisse (Jakob Öhrman) at work shooting the 250 miles of film that is his work there, but an over abundance of him having sex with Cañedo. Mary Sinclair (Lisa Owen, "Vantage Point"), striding about in exaggerated riding pants, arrives with her brother Hunter S. Kimbrough (Stelio Savante, "My Super Ex-Girlfriend") to turn financial screws, announce deadlines and advise that Eisenstein must return to Moscow. He steals a set of silver forks so that his arrest may delay his departure, but Concepción Cañedo (Maya Zapata, "Under the Same Moon") believes he's been indulged enough and wants her husband back.
Cinephiles will enjoy clips from Eisenstein's early works ("Battleship Potemkin," "October"), as well as the cinematic references Greenaway injects, but there is also a lot of walking and talking, both Bäck and Reinier van Brummelen's ("Nightwatching") furiously circling. The production is stunning, a tiled, lighted floor grid used to highlight both the much used bed and the famous photograph of Eisenstein holding a skull. There are a lot of ideas here, but Greenaway's focus on a hypothetical homosexual affair is overwrought.
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