Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching is yet another example of a contemporary film that leaves me baffled. Not because it is difficult to understand what is going on. For all Greenaway’s unconventional technique, the action is reasonably clear and (for him) straightforward. Rather, when it was over, I once again found myself uncertain as to whether or not I even liked it, much less whether I thought it was successful in its own terms, or “good” in the broad scheme of things. Some would no doubt attribute my befuddlement to Greenaway’s mannered approach, but my confusion has more in keeping with the way I feel about contemporary releases than my usual response to Greenaway’s work. As with so many new films, I’m left asking “What was this film about, and why was it made?”
The questions are related. The one thing in Nightwatching that did strike me immediately was its thematic similarity to Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. Once again an artist is victimized by the rich and powerful for creating an allegorical work that reveals their underhanded dealings. Even some of the imagery is the same, including the use of fire as a means of blinding. True, Contract is entirely a work of fiction, whereas Nightwatching is based on real people, albeit in highly fictionalized form. The parallels between the two films are nonetheless so striking that it is difficult to believe Greenaway was unaware of them.
So why repeat himself so blatantly? Possibly because the theme fascinates him, but I suspect that the major motivation was because Contract, the film that transitioned Greenaway from the obscurity of experimental filmmaking to international fame, was a success that the director was trying to repeat. In these reactionary days, it cannot be easy for a filmmaker as experimental as Greenaway to get funding. The interminable list of organizations, corporations and government agencies responsible for producing Nightwatching that unrolls before the film starts reads as an indictment of contemporary hostility toward innovative cinema. And if such reasons were at least partial motivation for returning to familiar themes, they would help to explain my feeling that the whole thing is a touch desperate.
The DVD of Nightwatching is accompanied by a documentary, Rembrandt’s J’accuse, also made (and narrated) by Greenaway, which explicates Nightwatching’s elaborate conspiracy theory in greater, if not exactly convincing, detail. The documentary is far more inventive formally, suggesting that Greenaway made Nightwatching to give him the excuse to make a film with more expressive freedom. He has, after all, infamously declared that cinema is dead and uses the documentary for a passing swipe at contemporary film. Anyone with such an attitude is unlikely to be committed fully to narrative features.
So Greenaway dresses the corpse of Nightwatching with suitably virtuosic flourishes, but is the smell of formaldehyde preferable to Hollywood’s rotten eggs? The results may be slightly more interesting, but they are just as tentative, just as tired, just as much in search of a purpose.