After Nigtwatching, Peter Greenaway pays his next homage to Dutch masters with “Goltzius and the Pelican Company” – a semi-biographical account from the life of sixteenth century engraver-printmaker Hendrik Goltzius, recalled ten years after his business trip to Italy with employees and their spouses. At the time, he was seeking funds to expand his Pelican Company using new material and equipment.
Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr) appraises the local Margrave (F. Murray Abraham) of his business plans, and persuades him to invest in his company which will go on to publish exclusive illustrated copies of biblical tales that focused ‘on the sensual’. The powerful Margrave (military governor of a region) – a self-professed libertarian who espouses free-speech, and famous for holding court in the library whilst taking a shit at the same time, replies that he would be interested if some conditions are met. One of his demands is to be entertained by Goltzius and company for six nights, with material that touches on sexual taboos from the Old Testament. They strike a deal.
Goltzius and his company re-enact six taboo topics; the original sin (Adam and Eve), incest (between Lot and his two daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), adultery (David and Bathsheba), paedophilia (Joseph and Pharaoh Potiphar’s wife), treachery (Samson and Delilah), and necrophilia (John the Baptist and Salomé, unwittingly taken from the New Testament). Not only do the graphic nature of their performances cause uproar among religious representatives in Margrave’s palace, they’ll also expose Margrave’s own hypocrisy when it comes to free speech. Some company members get caged, while some suffer an even worse fate. Having to contend with the Margrave’s short fuse and his lecherous advances on the company women, Goltzius will have to work hard to keep his wits about him – crucial, if he is to leave the palace alive, let alone obtain any of the promised funds…
The film has all the hallmarks of a typical Peter Greenaway – both in content and style, and contain enough references to his earlier work that’ll keep fans busy making connections. It pushes the envelope on taste without sacrificing creative vision, and even when there are moments when it could so easily have descended into sensationalism, it pulls back from the brink. But this is also one of his more light-hearted films, playful even, in appraising the industriousness of Hendrik Goltzius with a dash of Dutch humour. Even the wicked Margrave is funny when he isn’t killing or ordering someone arrested.
The screenplay is straightforward for those used to Greenaway’s films, but even otherwise, things will fall into place eventually – all one needs is patience. One of the more stylised sections of the film is the enactment of Genesis (Adam and Eve) using body-painted performers, and words-in-type floating across the screen. The different visual treatment separates it from the rest of the film, and stands out for no discernible reason. The international cast – well known within their respective shores, add to the exoticism of the period portrayed.
The set design and wide camera angles evoke the sense of watching a stage play on screen – the film was shot mostly inside what appears to be a disused shipyard. But there is also great detail where it’s needed – the costumes are sumptuous and authentic, and the cinematography has all the lushness associated with Greenaway’s films. I might not have been particularly bowled over by the sound design, but the film is nevertheless put together with great care under the British auteur’s watch. It is Recommended Viewing, and for users of this site in particular, Highly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Anne Louise Hassing, Kate Moran, Halina Reijn, Maaike Neuville, Flavio Parenti, Lars Eidinger, Giulio Berruti, and others
There’s often been nudity in Peter Greenaway’s films, but never as extensively as in this film. Sex scenes are relatively rare for Greenaway, and even when there is, it is often shown before or after sex, but the sex scene here is almost explicit. However, there are four outstanding scenes for which this film will become a ‘nude-scene classic’.
With regard to the actors’ partial or complete lack of pubic hair, one can only speculate on the reasons – well, here’s mine; it’s either to reduce any pornographic appeal by making the actors’ genitals appear less conspicuous, or it is to remain faithful to paintings and engravings from the period, which generally don’t feature pubic hair.
Whatever the case, it must have been uncharted territory for at least some of the actors, but good on them – they manage to pull their scenes off without any noticeable fuss.
Lars Eidinger must have been totally at ease with his nudity for him to brandish an impressive erection, and maintain it for a good part of a scene.
Anne Louise Hassing struts on stage in front of an audience wearing nothing but a collar while delivering her comedy – and I can’t think of any film actress – past or present – who could possibly pull it off with as much panache. Simply spectacular..!