Prospero’s Books (1991): United Kingdom/Netherlands/Italy/France/Japan – directed by Peter Greenaway
Rated R by the MPAA – contains some violent material, a plethora of nudes, and mature themes
Peter Greenaway is quite a character. He is famous for allegedly stating that “continuity is boring.” It also seems as though he thinks cinema has not evolved as an art form. This would explain why, after the relatively straightforward masterpiece The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, he started crafting films more akin to art. Also, his belief that the nude has not been adequately utilized in film is apparent in the fact that his next film, Prospero’s Books, is a rather bold amalgamation of editing and nudity.
It might be helpful for some to know that Prospero’s Books is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For others, even this piece of information will prove useless when trying to comprehend any sort of plot or narrative in the film. It seems Greenaway is more interested in conveying the story and its ideas through the composition of each frame, in the movement and actors onscreen. He uses a variety of techniques: varying opacities, picture-in-picture, heavily textured screens, to evoke a feeling or transmit an idea in an emotional or intuitive way.
The opening title sequence is phenomenal, one of the most finely orchestrated and densely realized openings in all of cinema. Prospero (John Gielgud) strides from left to right across a vast amount of screen, shadowed by the camera, as dozens upon dozens of people fill the foreground, background, and shadows of the frame. Many of them are nude or partially nude; some are dancing, some are walking, some are hanging from the ceiling. Changes in the lighting alternately reveal characters in the foreground or background that were previously unnoticeable.
The scene continues uninterrupted for minutes, and the technique is repeated later in the film with different characters and settings, but this does nothing to lessen the impact of Greenaway’s direction. Instead, it reveals a great deal about the level of detail he yearns to cram onto the screen at one time; not merely content with one frame, he often superimposes another screen on top of the first. It appears that Greenaway has a purpose for every object in every scene, including the dialogue, which, though sparse, seems entirely quoted from Shakespeare’s play. But any effort to discern the entirety of his meaning would leave any viewer, even those with great intellectual capabilities, weary and tired after a few minutes. Better to watch and observe, and become absorbed in Greenaway’s art.
The story, as much as there is one, revolves around Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan. He has a great number of books which he adores, and the film takes time to move through the books and expound upon several of them. Some are moving books, some of architecture, anatomy, water. Some seem almost mystical. Prospero loves them all, even more than his Dukedom. He has a daughter, Miranda (Isabelle Pasco), who is rather sickly. At one point the pair is forced to embark on a voyage across the ocean, mostly represented by a swimming pool set amidst Gothic pillars. They arrive on an island, eventually, and she meets a handsome boy whom she wishes to marry. At some point Prospero and the couple return to the mainland where he confronts the men who kicked him out.
As Prospero’s Books is staged more like a theatrical play than a typical movie, it is very hard to discern where certain scenes are supposed to be set. A swimming pool contains an old man in a flotation device and a large mirror. A young boy swings on an acrobatic swing, naked and peeing huge streams into the pool below. So forceful is his pee that he sinks a toy boat. One can only assume that this represents Prospero’s boat running into troubled waters due to the spirits (most of the young boys in the film are referred to as spirits).
Some of Greenaway’s scenes are mesmerizingly beautiful. They are chaotic and frenetic, but always ordered and usually symmetrical. Other scenes are disjointed and confusing, though it seems certain that Greenaway intended every element. Some of his shots are astounding, such as when he pulls back from the action to reveal a group of people, arranged like a classical painting, framing the first shot. Picture-in-picture, done with people draped around a scene.
The most powerful moments of the film occur whenever Michael Nyman’s score is allowed to take over. As in his work in The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, the music raises the production to another level, almost transcendentally. But there is too little of his music to last the entire film. There are not many people who would enjoy Prospero’s Books on a commercial, mainstream level. It is an intellectual, heady film that is very hard to fully understand. If watched and appreciated as art, the film shines. It may not be what one expects from cinema, but it is certainly a beautiful and intriguing work of art.