Rembrandt's J'Accuse (2009)
The Man Who Watched the Watchers
Published: October 20, 2009
Mr. Greenaway has described the “Nightwatching” installation as “a combination of art and technology designed for an attentive audience that will be intrigued by a world of light and moving images and the single frozen moment.” That pretty much sums up “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse” and, of course, most of cinema. Certainly Mr. Greenaway’s movie will work for, or perhaps on, only the attentive. His filmmaking style, with its accretions of images and text (and words words words), requires focus. In this case some casual knowledge of Dutch and European history probably also helps, as does a level of tolerance for Mr. Greenaway’s snobbism. “Most people,” he announces early, “are visually illiterate.” This, he continues, staring hard into the camera (j’accuse!), helps explain why we have such an “impoverished” cinema.
In brief, the movie functions as an art historical investigation of “The Night Watch,” into which, Mr. Greenaway forcefully argues, “Rembrandt has scrupulously painted an indictment of guilt in paint.” A crime has been committed, the filmmaker asserts, and “it is imperative that we reopen the case.” Completed in 1642, the year that Rembrandt turned 36 (he died in 1669), the painting depicts a large group of guardsmen, along with two women (or girls or dwarfs) and a dog. The painting is said to show the civic guard about to march off to protect Amsterdam, but where others see might and honor, Mr. Greenaway sees a murderous conspiracy and other calumnies. Furthermore, he maintains, Rembrandt lost his commissions, falling into poverty, directly because the painting exposed these crimes.
Mr. Greenaway builds his case on more than 30 mysteries he himself has detected in “The Night Watch.” As he moves through these mysteries, toggling between the painting and scenes from Rembrandt’s life (with Martin Freeman as the great man, and the likes of Jonathan Holmes offering support), Mr. Greenaway trains his eye — and ours — on seemingly every inch of the canvas. Everything is grist for his analytic mill, from the Italian influence to a dead chicken hanging from the waist of one of the female figures. Here a spear isn’t just a spear or even a phallic symbol, but also Rembrandt’s commentary on the prowess and deeds of the militiaman holding the weapon. Mr. Greenaway’s verbal argument is more persuasive than his visual or, more specifically, filmmaking one, which tends to divide the image into intersecting and overlapping squares that greatly resemble software windows, effectively turning the movie screen into a computer monitor.
It’s unfortunate that Film Forum hasn’t put “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse” on a double bill with “Nightwatching.” Both have been packaged together on a recently released American DVD by E1 Entertainment.
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Peter Greenaway; director of photography, Reinier van Brummelen; edited by Elmer Leupen; music by Giovanni Sollima and Marco Robino; produced by Femke Wolting and Bruno Felix; released by ContentFilm International. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Martin Freeman (Rembrandt van Rijn), Eva Birthistle (Saskia Uylenburgh), Jodhi May (Geertje Dirks), Emily Holmes (Hendrickje Stoffels), Jonathan Holmes (Ferdinand Bol), Michael Teigen (Carel Fabritius), Natalie Press (Marieke) and Peter Greenaway (Himself/Public Prosecutor).
The film's analysis of Rembrandt's satirical portrait of Ganymede (urinating) is priceless:
Rembrandt: Ganymede from Wikipedia