Eisenstein in Guanajuato

Movies Reviews
Eisenstein in Guanajuato

In 1931, the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein had already made three phenomenal films—Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October—and traveled to Mexico to work on ¡Que Viva México! with the help of Upton Sinclair and his wife. Eisenstein in Guanajuato presents his days in Mexico as the “10 Days that Shook Eisenstein,” as he explores his sexual liberation, discovering at the age of 33 that he is in fact gay. Yet Eisenstein in Guanajuato is less of a story of the infamous filmmaker and more a fantasized idealization of what director Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, The Draughtsman’s Contract) believes this mysterious time period might have been.

Played by Elmer Bäck, Eisenstein is a flurry of obnoxious insanity, almost like Roberto Benigni with the overenunciation of Borat and Eraserhead hair. In Eisenstein in Guanajuato, the eponymous character isn’t the director who made montage famous or created the fantastic Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin; he’s the guy who has diarrhea in the street, pukes on his shoes and has entire conversations with his penis, where he describes himself as a “boxer for the freedom of cinematic expression.”

Eisenstein quickly forgets about making his fourth film, instead embracing his newly discovered homosexuality with his tour guide Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). During the film’s most shocking scene, Cañedo pours olive oil over Eisenstein then proceeds to help him lose his anal virginity in graphic detail. Once finished and after having a Russian flag planted in his buttocks, Eisenstein proclaims, “I had to come to Mexico to go to heaven.”

Greenaway is far more interested in indulging his fantasies over what these 10 days in Eisenstein’s life might have included, which is mostly allowing Eisenstein and Cañedo to ruminate in bed about each other’s bodies, mostly how Eisenstein is lumpy and more frank discussions with his own penis. Occasionally, Eisenstein tells tales of his days with Robert J. Flaherty, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, but very quickly we return to Eisenstein jumping in his bed to espouse monologue after monologue about art.

Greenaway’s direction is filled with as much insanity as his main character, throwing in every stylistic choice at his fingertips; tossed-off symbolism, green screens, shoddy CGI and stream-of-consciousness images are mixed in liberally. Greenaway tries his best to do justice to the grandiosity of Eisenstein’s films, while also utilizing his own style. But the process only exhausts the audience and adds little to the story. It’s visually interesting at times but otherwise empty.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato has Greenaway playing make-believe with one of his favorite directors, espousing fictionalized ideas of what delineated his career and wiping away Eisenstein’s childishness through a story of discovery. Yet the visual flourishes and overabundant, poorly told metaphors, constant lectures and a third-act character introduction for no other reason than to give some sense of plot to the proceedings make for a frantic, uncoordinated and substance-lacking “what if?” glimpse at one of the most important early directors—and one who deserves better.

Director: Peter Greenaway
Writer: Peter Greenaway
Starring: Elmer Bäck, Luis Alberti
Release Date: February 5, 2016

Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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