Drowning By Numbers(1988)
Directed By Peter Greenaway
Drowning By Numbers is one of a very small group of perfect films I’ve seen. Not just 5, 10, and 100 point films, but flawless to the point where numerical systems fail to be valuable. Peter Greenaway’s third film is about three women a mother, daughter, and niece all named Cissie Colpitts, who one by one drown their husbands in a bath, in the sea, and in a pool. After the first drowning, the local coroner is asked to help cover up the crime, and he agrees believing this will give him carte blanche to have his way with the new widow. He is rebuked in the first of several such attempts. His name is Madgett and he orchestrates for the town a series of seemingly random, perhaps ancient (in fact completely made up) games, consisting of strange rules and regulations, like “Hangman’s Cricket” where half the game is spent learning the rules. Madgett’s son is named Smut (our narrator), and Smut is interested in a young girl dressed in a fancy gown ("whose [dresses] wide hips mock her immaturity according to Greenaway) who always claims to be on her way to a party, and who jumps rope counting from 1 to 100 in the films opening sequence. Numbers appear in every scene whether spoken aloud or written on a small or large object in the background. One could make the film itself into a game called “spot the numbers”, which count from the first scene to the last from 1 to 100. The film is full of small details some so obscure they are likely to please no one but Peter Greenaway or those willing to watch his behind the scenes blow-by blow “Fear Of Drowning” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExXW9lObzxg, where for instance, we learn that many lines of dialog consist of the last words of England’s kings, sometimes crazed non-sequitters muttered from their death beds like "let's not starve poorn nellie", and "We are all off to Heaven and Van Dyke is off to the company." . Why include such things? Because it makes the game for fun, that’s why. As always Greenaway composes every single sequence to achieve a sense of balance, and painterly poise. As usual most scenes, including idle landscape shots are recreations of paintings. Though the images are fantastic, the soundtrack by frequent collaborator Michael Nyman is stunning. I can’t think of a director and composer whose works fuse together with such iconoclastic fluid grace since Sergio Leone and Ennio Mariconne. Nyyman’s orchestral compositions are energetic, pulsating, lively, and captivating enough to be listened to and enjoyed apart from the film as its own music, and gives a sharp sense of irony and comic timing of its own to Greenaway’s visual tableaus. Greenaway is not what you would call a “humanist” director, he rarely shoots close ups, instead remains in wide screen, and letting his characters take up positions as figures in an image, not actors on a stage, or in a film. This can be difficult to deal with if identification with characters is a pre-requisite for enjoyment, because the film aims for visual awe, wafts of aural pleasure, and snatches of witty literate dialog that only doesn’t sound like dialog because of the casual delivery the lead actresses are able to give their macabre melodrama. Drowning By Numbers is a multi-layered film meant to be watched several times. It is a monument to be marveled at, but one where all of the elements of the film medium contribute the structure and design of the piece as whole, where form and content perfectly integrated into each other. The women who drown their husbands, at first do it out of anger, then out of disappointment, and finally out of “solidarity”, or in other words for no real reason at all. The pattern of threes needs to be complete, three murders, three autopsies, and three funerals. The youngest Cisse even shows regret, but she too is helpless to stop the pattern of imitation. Poor Smut also faces the horror of imitation, when he is told innocently enough by the jumper girl (who he pines for as his father does the three widows) and who is only repeating her mother when she says, that men with “circumcisions are better”. Smut: “The object of this game is to dare to fall with a noose around your neck from a place sufficiently high enough off the ground, such that the fall will hang you. The object of the game is to punish those who have caused great unhappiness by their selfish actions. This is the best game of all, because the winner is also the loser, and the judge's decision is always final.” We know the husbands will die, they are as inexorably fated to their turns in the plot as all people are fated for death, as films are fated to end after a certain number of scenes. We are made hyper-aware of these numbers because they are flashed in a countdown on screen. Does anyone remember the death clock, http://www.deathclock.com/, how it works is after a few personal details are typed in a clock appears counting down to the exact moment you will die. You can watch your life flicker away by measurements. We are all drowning in numbers. Cop: “Was it a natural death?” Madgett: “Is any death natural?”Yet it’s not all doom and gloom, because the coroner while being an eternal bachelor as fated to be rejected by the widows he assists as their husbands were to watery graves, he is also the master of games. Like his first film "the Draughtsmans’ Contract" the battle of the sexes consumes the characters, where in Draughtsman, an artist who believes he is having his way with a mother and daughter discovers all to late, he is in fact being used and disposed of. So too does Madgett find himself helpless in the face of “female solidarity”, leaving him to his only recourse of playing more games. Cissie Colpitts: “Could you get it up three times in an afternoon Madgett? Madgett: “I’d like to try…depends whose asking” Sure death is just around the corner at all times, but there are so many marvelous, silly, frivolous distractions to amuse ourselves with in the meantime; life and all of its contents. “No Country For Old Men” and "Blow-Up" have both made this same point about death’s inevitability and life as a game of chance, but where both those films suffered a self-serious somberness "Drowning By Numbers" remembers to be a tragic-comedy and not just a tragedy. Life is absurd, of course of course, but the absurd can be very funny, and humor after all is happiness’ cheeky cousin, sometimes inappropriate, but nearly always welcome. When is it too early to have a new all time favorite? Some say wait a year before you go saying your in love with a new band, author, artist that makes you re-appraise what it is you really look for in a work of art. I understand the reservation; one should be picky and patient about these things. Then again why bother waiting when joy presents itself, after all time is not on our side.Smut: “The full flavor of the game Hangman’s Cricket is best appreciated after the game has been played for several hours, by then every player has an understanding of the many rules and knows which character they want to play permanently.Finally an outright loser is found and is obliged to present himself to the Hangman who is always merciless”.