Saturday, August 17, 2013

Down for the Third Time

Film: Drowning by Numbers
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on rockin’ flatscreen.

Peter Greenaway is a director I have trouble understanding in some respects. I mean, I think I get his films in large part, but his oeuvre is a collage of seemingly disparate elements sewn into a whole. There’s a part of his work that is reminiscent of a director like Oshima—it’s blatantly sexual and earthy, with much of the plot being driven forward by sensual desires and actions, often in what would best be called non-traditional places. There’s also a large piece of his work that touches on the body horror of a director like Cronenberg. The difference is that Greenaway’s work is set more closely in the real world rather than science fiction or horror, and the body horrors that crop up are those that might actually happen, or at least could happen. It was true of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and it’s true of Drowning by Numbers.

At least two of the words in the title of Drowning by Numbers are incredibly appropriate. Three people drown in the film, and the numbers from one to 100 appear in the film at some point. The story concerns a trio of women—grandmother, mother, and daughter, all named Cissie Colpitts (played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson, respectively). In turn, starting from eldest to youngest, the three women drown their husbands and then coerce the local coroner Madgett (Bernard Hill) into helping them cover up the crime. For his part, Madgett is attracted to all three Cissie Colipittses, resulting in something not unlike the Three Billy Goats Gruff, where Madgett is promised something more and more wonderful each time he helps suppress the evidence of a deadly crime.

While the three drownings all have something in common—the drowning of a husband—they are also unique events, happening in different places and for different reasons. The eldest Cissie drowns her husband Jake (Brian Pringle) in the bathtub during a tryst with a young drunk local woman. His death, more or less, comes from his infidelity and a host of other minor annoyances. The middle Cissie kills her husband Hardy (Trevor Cooper) in the ocean because of his non-sexuality and his evident dislike of everything about her family. The youngest of the trio drowns her non-swimming husband of three weeks Bellamy (David Morrissey) in a swimming pool because she was disappointed in him and because she’d managed to get pregnant, which was all she really wanted in the first place.

Much of the counting and obsession with numbers in this comes from Smut (Jason Edwards), Madgett’s strange young son. Both Madgett and Smut are obsessed with games as well, playing a number of bizarre “ancient” games, some of which may actually be traditional games and others which were certainly created for this film. These games have bizarre and endless rules that make no sense, evidently existing only to confuse all of the players.

There’s also a great deal of sexuality in Drowning by Numbers, and it is a sexuality rather different than that in normal films. There’s no shame or embarrassment in sex and nudity in the country location of the film. Sex between couples is, more or less, something that simply happens and is a part of the natural world, much like sex between animals. Coming upon two dogs copulating would be no different in this world than finding Cissie #3 and Bellamy humping on someone’s couch.

There’s also an earthiness to this film that is unusual in a number of ways. I can’t think of a better word to describe it. Everything has a sense of the natural about it—food lies piled everywhere—apples cover the floor of rooms and the ground outside. There are also insects on everything. Strangely, though, this isn’t unpleasant and doesn’t give a sense of contamination or dirt, but something close to purity. Even the bugs convey this feeling of natural goodness and quality.

My biggest issue is that there’s a lot going on here that I simply have difficulty following. The constant games must mean something, but the rules make no sense. I can only think that there is a connection between these games and the sexual and criminal game being played by the three Cissies and Madgett, but other than the rules being arbitrary and confusing, I can find nothing. I’m also disturbed by the third drowning death. The first Cissie kills her husband because he cheats with much younger women and because of his terrible habits. The second Cissie kills hers because he’s a bastard. But the third? It’s almost like she does it to be part of the club.

I’m starting to think that I don’t love Greenaway. His vision is unique, and there are things I like in his work, but on the whole, his stories leave me cold. I find his take on sexuality unpleasant and his version of body horror uninteresting, and Drowning by Numbers does nothing to shift that opinion. In fact, it confirmed it.

Why to watch Drowning by Numbers: Like the games it presents, it’s more or less an extended puzzle looking to be solved.
Why not to watch: So much of it doesn’t make sense that it’s easy to get lost.


  1. As someone who has mentioned on more than one occasion that I tend to see patterns in films, I am ashamed to admit that I didn't pick up on the numbers of 1 to 100 appearing in order until the two runners had sequential numbers in the 70s. Sure, I had noticed other numbers appearing, but not often enough to recognize that they were more than four or five occurrences. That's why I pointed it out to you beforehand. And I wonder how many takes they had to shoot of the girl skipping rope in a cumbersome dress, counting from 1 to 100, all while naming off 100 different stars.

    I liked Drowning By Numbers, but I didn't love it. Unlike Cook Thief etc, which I hated, I got into the quirky humor of it all. I didn't have a problem with the games since I just wrote them off as some of the nonsense that Greenaway tosses into every movie apparently because it amuses him.

    I agree on the third husband's death. I got the impression she did it just because it was sort of expected of her.

    Good point on how some of the situations that might seem to be out of the ordinary instead just seemed to be a natural part of this film because of the way Greenaway presented them.

    1. I think you liked this more than I did. It was okay--I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't love it. I guess what it comes down to is that I don't love Greenaway's stories even though I really appreciate the visual appeal of his work.

    2. I was going to reply with brief thoughts on the various Greenaway movies I have seen, but when I looked them up on IMDB to make sure I didn't forget any I discovered that I had been associating some films to him that were the works of others.

      I would have sworn that 1986's Gothic and 1988's The Lair of the White Worm were his, but they came from Ken Russell. They both play with your head and are kind of out there, like some of Greenaway's work. And I also thought Castaway (1986) might have been his, only because it had Amanda Donohoe in it like Lair of the White Worm did, but that was from Nicholas Roeg.

      I think I've had the idea in my head that Greenaway had done those two Russell films ever since The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) came to video. I had never gotten around to seeing it until recently, but back then I had heard it was controversial like those three other 80s movies so maybe I just lumped them all together.

      Anyway, it turns out the only Greenaway films I've seen are the three in the list. I hated Cook Thief etc., while I liked Drowning by Numbers and The Pillow Book enough to recommend them to others if they sounded interesting to them.

      For what it's worth, both Gothic and White Worm are head trips that might be right up some people's alleys. I wouldn't say I'd recommend either, but they are an experience. Think sort of Cronenberg if he was into fantasy horror and not science fiction. I haven't seen them since they came to cable in the late 80s, but I still remember some images from both.

    3. I've seen some Ken Russell films--in fact, I've seen both of those. Believe it or not, I was shown Gothic in college by a professor who decided that we shouldn't watch it in class, but that we could take a classroom in the evening and watch it. Lair of the White Worm is fun if only because it stars Hugh Grant before he was anybody.

      I can see the mix-up. Greenaway and Russell have some things in common.