REVIEW: Eisenstein in Guanajuato

26 07 2015

QFest Houston

Anyone who has ever studied film academically knows the name Sergei Eisenstein and does not need to be reminded of his importance.  But for those who are uneducated (yet for whatever reason choose to watch the film), Peter Greenaway bends over backwards in “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” to make sure we know it.  This is not just a “great man” biopic; it is a biopic of a great man who knows he is one and name-drops his illustrious company like crazy.

While Greenaway acknowledges it would be a fool’s task to try to top the virtuosity of his subject, he certainly does not skimp out on the visuals to honor the founder of dialectical montage and creative editing.  “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” makes for a rather overwhelming visual experience with Greenaway often using split-screen to form a triptych.  This technique vastly increases the amount of information the eye has to take in, perhaps simulating the way moviegoers might have felt watching Eisenstein’s own “Battleship Potemkin” for the first time in the 1920s.  (Were it not for the gauche and corny CGI effects shots he insists on, Greenaway might have something completely remarkable in his own right.)

Eisenstein in Guanajuato

The only time Greenaway stops the relentless assault on the eyeballs occurs when Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck) gives into his sexual impulses with his guide in Mexico, Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti).  In Russia, where homosexuality was a criminal offense punished by banishment to Siberia, the artist learned to repress these desires.  Yet after Cañedo wears him down, Eisenstein gives in and allows himself the chance for real pleasure.

These scenes of frank, raw sexuality unfold with fairly little cinematic embellishment or restraint.  Greenaway utilizes long shots and extended takes, never shying away from the nudity or the carnality.  In some ways, it makes sense aesthetically for “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” to switch up the approach during these scenes.  Since Eisenstein himself feels out of his wheelhouse in gay sex, Greenaway wisely steers the film away from his subject’s comfort zone in montage.

The two leads’ romance occurs about halfway through the film, and everything afterwards makes for a real drag.  Greenaway never really establishes Eisenstein as a person outside of his work, so the focus on his personal life never feels particularly compelling.  The sexual revelation never gets to affect Eisenstein’s art, either, since the project that brings him to Mexico ends up yanked out of his hands by financiers.

So, in essence, “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” really just serves as a corrective to the historical narrative in Russia that generally tends to overlook the sexuality of the great director.  A worthy cause, sure – just not one that makes for great cinema.  C+2stars