Drowning By Numbers (1988)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

/, 1988. , , , , . Screenplay by Peter Greenaway. Cinematography by . Produced by , . Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

No subject ever feels familiar when filtered through the outrageous visual style and kinky narrative plotting of Peter Greenaway’s imagination, so it’s safe to say that his exploration of the battle of the sexes is a treatise on that subject as you’ve never seen it before.

Cissie () opens the film with the decision to drown her husband in his bathtub, tired of dealing with his infidelity, which is followed by Cissie () drowning her own husband in the waves that face their sprawling beachfront property. The house was only just recently used as the setting for the wedding of Cissie () and Bellamy (), who are enjoying newlywed sexual bliss but, while giving him swimming lessons in a giant pool, she also leads him to his watery grave.

With each death, the women consult the local coroner () to encourage him to officially label them accidental drownings, but in order to be willing to do them this favour, he demands sex in return, a trade which the three ladies consider for some time before they are co-opted into a game of tug of war to determine their ultimate fate. What is actually going on beneath the odd, adults-only fairy tale is the age-old crisis of power in relationships, a world in which men usually dominate women is being subverted by women who are ready to resort to the ultimate action to get on top of things.

Photographed evocatively by Sacha Vierny and designed by the always magnificent team of Jan Roelfs and Ben Van Os, it is of course as visually exciting a movie as the famed imagemaker can be counted on to make, with numerous scenes that feel like paintings of the Dutch masters come to vivid life and his familiar obsessions with birds, mathematical patterns and rhetorical language.

Humorous and daring, it’s also strangely less ambitious than the baroque, pulsating rhythms of Zed And Two Noughts, there are too many scenes of great actors having lengthy, practical conversations about relationships that aren’t nearly as interesting as the director usually is when he’s trying his least to be practical about plot. As a result, it feels like a padded-out version of one of his better films, but being from the period when Greenaway was at his strongest, it’s still one worth watching.

Cannes Film Festival: In Competition

Toronto International Film Festival: 1988


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