Goltzius and the Pelican Company is a wonderful blast of thinking showmanship from Peter Greenaway. I thought lightning had stopped striking in Greenaway’s work. Long time, no flash; and I still like the spring storms of his earliest work best of all (A Walk Through H, The Falls).
But here is a racy, racing light-and-thunder show, culled from history, whose images ripple like St Elmo’s fire. Luminous calligraphy, then seductive water reflections, dance across scenes from European culture in convulsion. In 1590 the Dutch painter and printmaker Hendrick Goltzius, played with gnomic panache by Dutch actor-poet Ramsey Nasr, visited his patron and governor the Margrave of Alsace (F. Murray Abraham, gnarled and sonorous). The Margrave stumped up for a costly printing project – a salaciously illustrated Old Testament – in return, the film speculates, for a theatrical enactment of the Good Book’s best known sex scenes by Goltzius and his Pelican acting troupe.
Cue fantastical tableaux vivants, playing on the high-toned carnality of Mannerist painting. The Bible was always the motherlode for erotica disguised as piety. Cue also torrents of clever dialogue. The semiotic ramblings to camera by Goltzius/Nasr are surely a spoof of Slovenian cine-sage Slavoj Žižek (of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema)? If not, the resemblance is just a bonus coincidence. We romp along from Adam and Eve to Samson and Delilah and beyond. Some of the sex is graphic. So is the ingenuity of vision. Working at this pitch, Greenaway is a kind of inspirational meld of metteur en scène and metteur insane. Madness, moving in on genius.