Alan Parker famously said of Peter Greenaway, that he would move his children to America if he was allowed to make another film. It was a typically frank, working class, barrow-boy reaction to the effete DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT (1982) which was an erudite and cold film that propelled Greenaway to the attention of the art-house cinema circuit. Parker’s reaction to the film was born out of frustration with the BFI that had financed its production, he would go on to have a very active role in the BFI, but he has never shaken off his distain for the pretentiousness of Greenaway. Parker was not alone, others including Ken Russell have attacked the lack of humanity and the inherent cruelness at the heart of his films, which may seem a bit rich coming from Russell. He was vilified by critics in the eighties too; my favourite is Pauline Kael who said, “Greenaway is a cultural omnivore who eats with his mouth open.”
I can understand what she means, but its the element of a cultural washing machine that I like about his films.They paradoxically obscure and completely obvious at the same time. When I was about to go to college back in the late 80s, DROWNING BY NUMBERS was a godsend, as it wears its clever cultural references on its sleeve. It is rich in ideas and allusions and it is playing a game with the audience from the beginning to its oblique ending.
The story is a relatively a simple retelling of the billy goats gruff fairy tale featuring three generations of women, a Grandmother (Joan Plowright), a mother (Juliet Stevenson) and a daughter (Joely Richardson) each named Cissie Colpitts who flirtatiously convince the local coroner, Madgett (Bernard Hill) to cover up the successive drowning of their husbands. They seem to live in a mythical version of England that was created in Hammer films, THE WICKER MAN (1973) and Rupert Bear comics. The imagery of decay pervades the atmosphere as Madgett’s son, Smutt catalogues roadkill marking it with a firework display. Smut also recites the rules of increasingly ritualistic games that seem rich in tradition, but are completely made up. There is a key scene where the characters are playing a game of ‘Deadman’s Catch’ where all the men end up lying in the ‘winding cloth’ while the three Cissies circle them.
Death is never too far away. David Morrisey (in his first feature film) and Joely Richardson collide with dead cows as if it is a minor inconvenience and there are creepy crawlies filling the frame, gorging on over-ripe fruit like something from a rustic, still life painting.
Another device used by the film is counting. It begins with a young girl who counts the stars as she skips on the pavement with a neon rope, stopping at a hundred, because the film itself counts from one to a hundred (but not in sequence) by having hidden numbers in the frame and the dialogue – my favourite is the copy of CATCH 22 – the game of finding the numbers is captivating. Also, buried within the dialogue there are a number of ‘famous last words’ and references to pieces of art (behind Madgett’s bed is a print of Bruegel’s ‘Children’s Games’) and some of the composition of shots recall Dali.
Its a film that is ideal for the VCR generation as each repeated viewing reveals another secret like Kit William’s MASQUERADE book. DROWNING BY NUMBERS is an under-rated British film which is sadly in danger of being forgotten. Greenaway’s films offer a singular, comic, eccentric vision of Englishness and this is a fascinating example of his unique vision, even if he is eating with his mouth open.