Goltzius and the Pelican Company might be only the second (after 2007’s Nighwatching) of Peter Greenaway’s Dutch Master Trilogy, but it could be the end of the good will many of us extend to the maverick British creator of The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & Her Lover. Just as we thought that Nightwatching would delve into the fascinating historic and artistic mystery that is Rembrandt’s eponymous group portrait, so we hope that Goltzius and the Pelican Company will shed some light on 16th century printer, painter and engraver Henrik Goltzius’s creation of his deluxe edition of a graphic Old Testament. In fairness, the film does attempt to bring the book to life, but the pornography is not restricted to its explicit illustrations.
Greenaway’s style has evolved for the worse from the days when his films had a classier look and a recognisable narrative, however flamboyant. In Nightwatching and Goltzius, it is as though we are watching a school production where imagination and decadence are substituted for production values. For all the costumes, heavy make up and courtly entourage, the hyper-theatrical fails to situate the action in a credible historic context.
Goltzius (played by the former Dutch Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasar of all people) approaches the neurotic Margrave of Alsace (F Murray Abraham) to finance his printing press. The reportedly liberal-minded Margrave agrees, but he drives an increasingly hard bargain. When Goltzius suggests that his male and female troop, the Pelicans, dramatise the six biblical tales that he plans to include in the book, the Margrave becomes personally involved. Soon, friction and rivalry between the Margrave and his brother on the one hand and the couples who comprise the Pelican group on the other, soon blur the lines between fiction and reality with tragic results.
Since each of the biblical tales was really intended to illustrate a different sexual taboo, Greenaway has a perfect excuse to turn his film into stylised pornography, much of it tongue-in-cheek, and some of it repulsive. Greenaway’s rendition of the seduction of Lott by his daughters is so kinky it’s almost funny while Salome and St John the Baptist gives the term sacrilege a new meaning.
You have to admire Greenaway’s bold attempt to redefine art house filmmaking by stripping away the polite pretence behind the Dutch masters to suggest what was really going on. Art has not changed at all, he seems to be suggesting, just the way our repressed Bourgeois society has packaged it to make it more palatable. Just as Goltzius had to prostitute himself to finance his art, so Greenaway uses titillating nudity and sexually explicit scenes to finance his.
This clever metaphor might have worked if we believed any of the narrative and cared about any of the characters; or if the excessive length had not worn away the novelty.
Joyce Glasser – MT film reviewer