Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers

Once you’ve counted a hundred, all the other hundreds are the same.

Peter Greenaway is a weird filmmaker. I thought he was weird enough after The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover (not to mention the almost incomprehensible The Pillow Book), and I am only fully convinced after seeing Drowning by Numbers, his picture that precedes that one. Apparently the editors decided the list didn’t have nearly enough Greenaway, as they added this one to the second edition of the list, even though this and The Cook…Her Lover are almost identical in visual aesthetic. But, mine is not to complain, but to follow, I guess. Drowning by Numbers does have a few things about it that are at the very least likable, so to see it standing alone from Greenaway’s other work, there’s merit to be found here.

The film details the exploits, as they will soon be, of three women, all in the same family, and all named Cissie Colpitts. We watch a three-fold story of each Cissie Colpitts drowning her husband, and then trying to get the local coroner, Madgett, to help with covering up the crime. Of the three Greenaway films I’ve now seen, all three have a virtually identical aesthetic and mood to them; a lot of darkness and squalor, with almost neon colors illuminating the scenery. Even the daytime shots are very rarely (if ever) in full sunlight, and the day scenes usually don’t last for very long. Wes Anderson seems to take his cinematography style directly from Peter Greenaway; flat compositions of people and objects in the dead center of the frame, with perfectly parallel or perpendicular movements, making the whole film take place literally within a square or cube. It’s a weird way of framing the action, pretty much completely contrary to many rules of film composition, but as I mentioned in the very first sentence of this review, Greenaway is a weird guy. The acting was all right, for the most part, with the pleasant exception of the coroner character. Madgett, played with joyful exuberance by Bernard Hill (of Titanic and The Lord of the Rings fame), is the consistent scene-stealer, along with his son, amusingly named Smut, and the various made-up games they spend most of the film explaining to us, for no apparent reason.

So… have I mentioned how weird a film this is? Because this is a weird film. The title is taken pretty much literally; the plot follows the three Cissies as they drown each of their husbands, and, for another imperceptible reason, the numbers 1 to 100 appear in sequence through the whole running time, either visually appearing on the screen somehow, or spoken by the characters. It becomes a bit of a game to follow along with the number count, and indeed this may just be another of the many games Madgett and Smut play with each other, and on us, the audience, albeit one that is decidedly more meta than the others. As much as I did like the games this played with its own conventions and story, I just couldn’t get over how… weird it all was. It was like if Wes Anderson had tried to make some sort of hybrid of an Ealing comedy and a Kubrick film, and that’s about as weird a comparison for a film to have. It’s certainly an experience to have (either this or The Cook…Her Lover); the only thing is, trying to get through the whole experience, despite the unnerving feeling that what you’re watching is completely and decidedly… odd.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


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