Sergei Eisenstein was an exceptional talent and a fabulously interesting person. An energetic innovator who came of age in the cradle of the Russian Revolution, he fused theory and practice in cinema to make some of the most iconic and important films of the silent era. He singlehandledly transformed his medium, leaving works that still feel fresh today. You could learn that in the first few minutes of watching Peter Greenaway’s film on Eisenstein, Eisenstein in Guanajuato; on the other hand, I just told you, and I saved you the trouble of having to watch the rest of the film.
To Greenaway’s credit, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is not your everyday ultra-dull prestige biopic. It’s a hyper-pretentiously faux avant-garde prestige biopic. It’s nominally about Eisenstein’s fateful journey to Mexico, but not really, since it has no regard for fact. Compared to Hollywood claptrap spoonfeeding anodyne baby food disguised as history, it has the potential to be refreshing. The problem is that it has no real regard for character or craft, and thus no real regard for its audience. Which makes sense – Peter Greenaway has slowly but surely become the archetypal artist who only makes art for themselves. That’s perfectly admirable, but it just shouldn’t put any obligation on anyone else to watch it.
Eisenstein in Guanajuato is a mediocre, derivative novel realized as a series of mediocre, derivative paintings slapped together by a grabbag of half-baked, quarter-realized gimmicks that seem really cool to second-year film students. They are, in fact, incoherent and exhausting; I’ve often contracted headaches from seeing films in 3-D IMAX, but never in the comfort of my living room.
It’s all in the service of an odd and pointless tale of Eisenstein’s sexual awakening; that awakening, and the film, center on a truly befuddling sex scene I would describe at length except I’m not even sure you’d believe me. Most of the film is a doubling down on Greenaway’s navel-gazing predilections and obsessions – which are the kind of stuff critics tend to dismiss more easily when the Farrelly brothers do it – without any attempt to craft a compelling narrative. Elmer Bäck’s performance in the titular role is telling: it’s an admirable attempt to carve something more than caricature from a character who spends most of his time soiled, obnoxiously speechifying, or naked, and often all three. He is foiled by the fact that every time the film’s manic gimmickry slows long enough for characterization or plot to happen, there’s no there there.
Rather than conclude by dumping further on a forgettable, pointless film, I will instead try to salvage some good from it. Maybe the existence of this film will lead people to wonder about Sergei Eisenstein; if so, they can delight in the fact that his seminal works are available for free without any intellectual property restrictions. You can watch Battleship Potemkin right here, on YouTube. If the fact of this film encourages more people to discover the actual classic works of cinema, then at least it wasn’t a total waste.