DROWNING BY NUMBERS(director/writer: Peter Greenaway; cinematographer: Sacha Vierny; editor: John Wilson; music: Michael Nyman; cast: Joan Plowright (Cissie Colpitts 1), Juliet Stevenson (Cissie Colpitts 2), Joely Richardson (Cissie Colpitts 3), Bernard Hill (Madgett), Jason Edwards (Smut), Bryan Pringle (Jake), Trevor Cooper (Hardy), David Morrissey (Bellamy), Jane Gurnett (Nancy), Kenny Ireland (Jonah Bognor), Michael Percival (Moses Bognor); Runtime: 121; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Kees Kasander/Denis Wigman; Live Home Video; 1988-UK)
“Its worth is drowned out by its obscurity and urge to make everything into an intellectual game.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A visually dazzling, diverting, surreal black comedy set in a peaceful English village. What takes place there is playful and arcane, and would probably delight most misanthropes. It’s by eccentric Brit writer-director Peter Greenaway (“The Pillow Book”/”Prospero’s Books”/”The Belly of an Architect”), who has us seeing stars and counting to a hundred in his elegantly styled and coyly presented nonsensical murder tale that’s envisioned as a fun game to play. It tells the bizarre story of three generations of women all named Cissie Colpitts, who drown their unwanted tiresome husbands over marital problems. Cissie 1 (Joan Plowright) is the 63-year-old mother of Cissie 2 (Juliet Stevenson), and her 19-year-old granddaughter is Cissie 3 (Joely Richardson). After Cissie 1 finds her drunken fat hubby Jake in the tub with another woman, Nancy or Nelly (Jane Gurnett), she drowns him. The local coroner, an obsessive game player, Madgett (Bernard Hill), knows the death is suspicious but calls it a heart attack hoping to get sexual favors from the murderess. Later Cissie 2 drowns her inattentive and sexually inept flabby husband Hardy in the sea and then Cissie 3, married only three weeks to the obnoxious but handsome Bellamy, in a copycat murder drowns her non-swimming hubby in the community swimming pool after being certain she’s pregnant–the only reason she married him. The coroner, who has the hots for all three Cissies, declares all the deaths accidental drownings, but is rebuffed by all three in gaining sexual favors as he reminds them of their late husbands.
The opening scene has a girl in a hoop skirt skipping rope by her house and counting the stars by their real names until she reaches a 100. Greenaway following suit has placed the numbers 1 to 100 throughout the film. The number 1 appears painted on a tree in the beginning scene, a runner with the number 70 on his jersey appears on the beach about 3/4 of the way into the film, and it ends when a rowboat appears that has the number 100. For the jokester Greenaway, one of the simple challenges he offers is for the viewer to spot all the numbers. It also deals with metaphorical game playing (such as Greenaway’s cynical takes on sex and death) and it teases us with the last words of such notable figures as Samson and Delilah, Breughel, Gainsborough, Charles II, William Pitt and Lord Nelson. A subplot has the coroner’s son, Smut (Jason Edwards), painting numbers on leaves, taking photos of himself with painted symbols on his nude body that the police snatch and claim are pornographic, collecting road kill corpses and botching a circumcision he crudely performs on himself with a scissors. Being innocent of child abuse and guilty of collusion to the three murders, naturally the coroner gets into hot water with the authorities over child abuse. This leads to a surprise ending, that goes along with the film’s theme of game playing and doing everything by the numbers. Such games as Tug-of-War, Deadman’s Catch, Sheep and Tides, and Hangman’s Cricket are inventively filmed. What it all means is another story, as the significance of all these numerological and game playing doings might be only as weighty as you want to make it.
It’s a strange esoteric film that is clever but perhaps a little too clever for its own good, as its worth is drowned out by its obscurity and urge to make everything into an intellectual game.
REVIEWED ON 10/16/2007 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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