Newport, Gwent, Wales, 5 April 1942.
had first exhibition of paintings, London, 1964; worked as a film editor
for the Central Office of Information, 1965–76; directed his first
, 1966; directed his first feature,
British Film Institute Special Award, for
, 1980; Melbourne Film Festival Best Short Film, for
Act of God
, 1981; Cannes Film Festival Best Artistic Contribution, Seattle
International Film Festival Golden Space Needle-Best Director, for
Drowning by Numbers
, 1988; Catalonian International Film Festival Best Director, for
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
, 1989; two prizes at Festival International du Nouveau Cinema et de la
A TV Dante
, 1990; Seattle International Film Festival Golden Space Needle-Best
Director, Catalonian International Film Festival Best Film, for
The Pillow Book
, 1996; Istanbul International Film Festival Honorary Award, 1997.
Films as Director/Screenwriter:
Train ; Tree
Revolution ; Five Postcards from Capital Cities
H Is for House (+ ph, ed, voice)
Windows (+ ph, ed, voice); Water ; Water Wrackets (+ ph, ed)
Goole by Numbers
Dear Phone (+ ph, ed)
1–100 ; A Walk through H (+ ed); Vertical Features Remake (+ ph, ed)
The Falls (+ ed, narration)
Act of God (for TV) (doc); Zandra Rhodes ; Terence Conran (d only)
The Draughtsman's Contract
Four American Composers
Making a Splash (d only); A TV Dante—Canto 5
Inside Rooms—The Bathroom ( Inside Rooms: 26 Bathrooms, London & Oxfordshire, 1985 ) (doc) d only); A Zed and Two Noughts
The Belly of an Architect
Drowning by Numbers ; Fear of Drowning (co-d) (+ narration); Death in the Seine
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover ; A TV Dante (co-d) (for TV); Hubert Bals Handshake (+ narration)
Prospero's Books ; M Is for Man, Music, Mozart
Rosa (d only)
The Baby of Macon ; Darwin (for TV)
Stairs 1 Geneva (doc) (d only) (+ narration); Lumiere and Company (co-d)
The Pillow Book (+ ed)
The Bridge (d only)
8 1/2 Women ; Death of a Composer (+ narration)
Love Love Love (Nyman) (ed)
By GREENAWAY: books—
A Walk through H , London, 1978.
Verticle Features Remake , London, 1979.
The Falls , London, 1980.
The Droughtsman's Contract , London, 1982.
A Zed and Two Noughts , London, 1986.
The Belly of an Architect , London, 1988.
Drowning by Numbers , London, 1988.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover , London, 1989.
Fifty-five Men on Horseback , London, 1990.
Prospero's Books , New York, 1991.
Flying out of This World , Paris, 1992; Chicago, 1994.
100, Hundert Objekte zeigendie Welt , Stuttgart, 1992.
The World of Peter Greenaway , with Leon Steinmetz, Boston, 1995.
By GREENAWAY: articles—
Interview with Karen Jaehne, in Cineaste (New York), no. 2, 1984.
Interviews with Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), February 1984 and October 1987.
Interview with E. Decaux and B. Villien, in Cinématographe (Paris), March 1984.
Interview with Don Ranvaud, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1987.
"Architecture and Morality," interview with J. Clarke, in Films and Filming (London), October 1987.
Interview in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Winter 1989.
Interview with Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), November 1989.
Interview in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), March 1990.
Interview with Gary Indiana, in Interview (New York), March 1990.
"Food for Thought," interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1990.
Interview with Marcia Pally, in Cineaste (New York), no. 3, 1991.
"Paintbox-bilder," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), no. 5–6, 1991.
"Die Moeglichkeiten dieser aufregenden Rahmen-Geschichten koneeen beliebig weitergesponnen werden," interview with M. Bodmer, in Filmbulletin (Winterthur, Switzerland), no. 5/6, 1991.
Interview with Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), April 1991.
"Notes de travail pour Les livres de Prospero ," in Positif (Paris), May 1991.
"Past for the present," interview with A. Cogolo, in Cinema & Cinema (Bologna), September/December 1991.
Interview with Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), October 1991.
Interview with Lawrence Frascella, in Harper's Bazaar (New York), November 1991.
" Prospero's Books —Word and Spectacle," interview with M. Rodgers, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), no. 2, 1991/1992.
Greenaway, Peter, "Otvenot ferfi lohaton," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 2, 1992.
Interview with D.E. Williams, in Film Threat (Beverly Hills), February 1992.
Interview with S. Turman, in Films in Review (New York), March/April 1992.
Interview with A. Berthin-Scaillet, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), December/January 1992/1993.
Greenaway, Peter, "Minden, ami el minden, ami halott," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 1, 1993.
"Angyalokrol es szornyekrol," interview with M. Tranchant and F. Ferney, in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 9, 1993.
On GREENAWAY: books—
Caux, Daniel, and others, Peter Greenaway , Paris, 1987.
Barchfield, Christiane, Filming by Numbers: Peter Greenaway , Tubingen, 1993.
Denham, Laura, The Films of Peter Greenaway , London 1993.
Bogani, Giovanni, Peter Greenaway , Rome 1995.
De Gaetano, Domenico, Il Cinema di Peter Greenaway , Torino 1995.
Gorostiza, Jorge, Peter Greenaway , Madrid, 1995.
Kremer, Detlef, Peter Greenaway Filme: vom Uberleben der Bilderun Bucher , Stuttgart, 1995.
Bencivenni, Alexxandro, and Anna Samueli, Peter Greenaway: il cinema delle idee , Recco, Genova, 1996.
Woods, Alan, Being Naked—Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway , Manchester 1996.
Elliott, Bridget, and Anthony Purdy, Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory , Chichester, West Sussex, 1997.
Lawrence, Amy, The Films of Peter Greenaway , Cambridge, New York, 1997.
Pascoe, David, Peter Greenaway: Museums and Moving Images , London 1997.
On GREENAWAY: articles—
Simon, L., "Music and Film: An Interview with Michael Nyman," in Millenium (New York), Fall 1981/Winter 1982.
Kennedy, Harlan, "Peter Greenaway: His Rise and Falls ," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1982.
Brown, R., " The Draughtsman's Contract : From a View to Death," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1982.
Auty, Chris, "Greenaway's Games," in Stills (London), May/June 1983.
Rayns, Tony, "Peter Greenaway," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), September 1983.
" The Draughtsman's Contract Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), October 1984.
Rayns, Tony, "Of Natural History and Mythology Born," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1985.
"Peter Greenaway Section" of Positif (Paris), April 1986.
Elsaesser, Thomas, and Tony Rayns, " Drowning by Numbers : Games of Love and Death," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1988.
Bohringer, R., article in Positif (Paris), November 1989.
De Feo, R., "Fantasy in Crimson," in Art News (New York), March 1990.
Trucco, T., "The Man Will Eat Literally Anything," in New York Times , 1 April 1990.
Acker, K., "The Color of Myth," in Village Voice (New York), 17 April 1990.
Van Gelder, L., "At the Movies," in New York Times , 29 June 1990.
Pally, Marcia, "Order vs. Chaos: The Films of Peter Greenaway," in Cineaste (New York), no. 3, 1991.
Canavas, C., "Das Kino, das (neue) Fernsehen, die Maleri und ihr Liebhaber Peter Greenaway," in Filmbulletin Winterthur, Switzerland), no. 5/6, 1991.
Ardai, Z., "Az undor titokzatos targya," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 12, 1991.
Jacobs, K., "For Peter Greenaway, Movies Are a Dutch Treat," in New York Times , 21 April 1991.
Clark, J., "Filmographies," in Premiere (New York), September 1991.
Richard, F., article in Positif (Paris), October 1991.
Frascella, L., "Britain's Mavericks," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), November 1991.
Rodman, H.A., "Anatomy of a Wizard," in American Film (Los Angeles), November/December 1991.
Zagari, P., "Gli intoccabili," in Cinema Nuovo (Rome), November/December 1991.
Olofsson, A., "In pa bara skinnet," in Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 5, 1992.
Csake, M.C., "Az eltorhetetlen palca' in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 7, 1992.
De Gaetano, R, "Lo spessore della superficie," in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), January/February 1992.
"Percorso fotografico nell'universo di Greenaway," in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), January/February 1992.
"Filmografie," in Segnocinema (Vicenza, Italy), January/February 1992.
Glombitza, B., "Peter Greenaway," in Filmfaust (Frankfurt), January/February 1992.
Imparato, E., "Il corpo salvato," in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), July/August 1992.
Dolinska, R., "Falszywe dokumenty Petera Greenawaya," in Kino (Warsaw), October 1992.
Bodmer, M., "Technik und Handwerk," in Filmwaerts (Hanover), Winter 1992.
Kapp, H.J., "Musik, Zeit und anderes," in Filmwaerts (Hanover), Winter 1992.
Rother, R., "Aesthetik der Quantitaet," in Filmwaerts (Hanover), Winter 1992.
Berthin-Scaillet, A., "Comment cadrer le cinema de Peter Greenaway," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), December/January 1992/1993.
"Filmographie: plongees dans l'oeuvre de Peter Greenaway," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), December/January 1992/1993.
Serravalli, L., "Peter Greenaway: Propsero's Books e la grande stagione del realismo barocco," in Cinema Sud (Avellino, Italy), December/January/February 1992/1993.
Lajta, G., "Vilagszertar," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 1, 1993.
Kozma, G., "A legy es a mezespohar," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 4, 1993.
Masson, A., "Le bruit des nuages," in Positif (Paris), January 1993.
Peck, A., "M Is for Music, etc.," in Positif (Paris), January 1993.
O'Pray, Michael, "Peter Greenaway, in International Film Guide (London, Hollywood), 1998.
* * *
An ancient Chinese encyclopedia, according to Borges, divides animals into "(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance." One is tempted to add, (o) those featured in Peter Greenaway's films. The inclusion would seem appropriate for a filmmaker who has constantly displayed a fascination for the organic and the classificatory in a body of films that have themselves retained an art-house individuality within the broader criteria of popular success.
Greenaway's biography implies a deeper integration between life and his art than some critics might suggest. He grew up in post-war Essex, his father was an ornithologist—perhaps the quintessential English hobby—and the petit-bourgeois world of public respectability and private eccentricity seems to have left him with a taste for the contradictory that hallmarks his work ("The black humour, irony, distancing, a quality of being in control, an interest in landscape, treating the world as equal with an image, these are very English qualities. I can't imagine myself living abroad"). He trained as a painter rather than a filmmaker, but his first exhibition, "Eisenstein at the Winter Palace," indicated an interest that led him into film editing at the Central Office of Information, the government department responsible for informing the public in the unique "homecounties" voice of domestic propaganda.
These years also saw Greenaway developing a crop of his own absurdist works—films, art, novels, illustrated books, drawings—with titles such as Goole by Numbers and Dear Phone , as well as directing (non-absurdist) Party Political Broadcasts for the Labour Party. They also saw the introduction of his fictional alter ego, Tulse Luper, archivist, cartographer, ornithologist extraordinaire ("He's me at about 65. A know-all, a Buckminster Fuller, a McLuhan, a John Cage, a pain"). Nomenclature means a lot to Greenaway in determining where one would be filed in the unfortunate event of a statistically (im)probable end. The Falls is a catalogue of victims of V.U.E. (Violent Unknown Event), with characters such as Mashanter Fallack, Carlos Fallanty, Raskado Fallcastle, and Hearty Fallparco. The epitome of absurdity was perhaps reached in Act of God , a film based around interviews with people who'd been struck by lightning in an attempt to find out what led to such an unpredictable event.
But perhaps the most tickling piece of absurdity for Greenaway came in the commercial success of The Draughtsman's Contract , his first film made on a reasonable budget. It made an uncharacteristic concession to plot, characterization, and scenic coherence. A stylish, lavish, and enigmatic puzzle revolving around murder in a stately seventeenth-century English home, it soon became the subject of a mythical French film conference that discussed its title for five days, and gained popular fame as everyone asked what was it all about. But it made Greenaway's name, and briefly contested box office ratings with the likes of E.T. and Gandhi , although Greenaway's intended length was four hours—"one suspects it was originally closer to Tristram Shandy than Murder at the Vicarage ," as one critic remarked.
Greenaway's ideas tend to work in twos. A Zed and Two Noughts took Siamese twins separated at birth and saw them cope with their grief at the death of their wives in a study in the decomposition of zoo animals. Belly of an Architect silhouetted the visceral mortality of Stourley Kracklite against his plans for an exhibition on a visionary eighteenth-century architect, Etiénne-Louis Boullée. But the dialectic seems more important than the ideas themselves, as Greenaway hints: "The important thing about Boullée—and this is where he's very like a filmmaker, who tends to spend much more time on uncompleted projects than completed ones—is that very few of his buildings were constructed. I've taken that up in Kracklite's fear of committal, being prepared to go half-way and no further, which is Kracklite's position and maybe my position as well."
In this position Greenaway has always been most successful when casting strong leading actors. He secured Brian Dennehy as Kracklite, for instance, and the cast of arguably his most successful film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover , included Michael Gambon (the Thief) and Helen Mirren (his Wife).
Greenaway's ideas are always sufficiently ambiguous to resist trivialisation, but invariably involve death: Death and Landscape, Death and Animals, Death and Architecture, Death and Sex, Death and Food (cannibalism). But there are factors which make them more palatable. One of them is a taste for sumptuous framing (helped by cinematographer Sacha Vierney), in which he envisages an aesthetic complexity similar to that of the golden age of Dutch art, "where those amazing manifestations of the real world that we find in Vermeer and Rembrandt are enriched by a fantastic metaphorical language." The other is his close collaboration with the composer Michael Nyman, whose insistent scores lend an inexorable quality to Greenaway's sometimes spatial fabric of ideas.
The films of Peter Greenaway continue to be consistently outrageous and challenging. Drowning by Numbers is a bizarre, erotic concoction about three generations of women, each named Cissie Colpitts (and played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson). Each Cissie is saddled with a husband who is lecherous or inattentive. And each one decides to murder her mate by drowning him. Madgett the coroner (Bernard Hill), who lusts after these women, agrees to list the deaths as natural. But the heroines hold the upper hand in the story, and Madgett's fate proves to be beyond his control.
Prospero's Books is an original, daring adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest , with almost all of the dialogue spoken by 87-year-old Sir John Gielgud (cast as Prospero, a role he played many times on stage). The other actors are little more than extras and, as in many of Greenaway's works, there is a mind-boggling amount of nudity. Purist defenders of the Bard may find much to fault in Prospero's Books , but the film remains noteworthy both for Gielgud's splendid reading of the text and its exquisitely layered imagery and production design.
The Baby of Macon , which featured Julia Ormond and Ralph Fiennes prior to their ascension to stardom, is a demanding drama. It is set in the seventeenth century and presented as a play being performed on a vast stage. The play depicts the birth and life of a saint-like baby. In typical Greenaway fashion, there is luminous cinematography (by the filmmaker's frequent collaborator, Sacha Vierny) and production design. Some will find The Baby of Macon stimulating; others will think it overblown; and still others will be perplexed by it all.
The Pillow Book is one of Greenaway's more thoughtful features: a multi-layered, mind-massaging tale that is at once highly literate and deeply erotic. Greenaway's heroine is Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a young Japanese woman, and his story spotlights how she develops the desire to have her body painted and thus transform herself into a living, breathing work of art. As he weaves his tale, Greenaway explores the relationship between art and eroticism. At one point, Nagiko declares, "I was determined to take lovers who would remind me of the pleasures of calligraphy." Among the filmmaker's other concerns are father-daughter bonds, and how the past relates to the present.
The Pillow Book is (yet again) stunningly photographed by Sacha Vierny; the images are dazzling, and there is abundant use of split screens and other visual devices. Part of the dialogue is in Japanese and is translated not so much by traditional subtitles as calligraphy, which blends into Greenaway's imagery and becomes an integral part of the film's overall design. Indeed, watching the film is the equivalent of viewing a moving painting.
Unfortunately, Greenaway's subsequent feature, 8 1/2 Women , is arguably his most disappointing. The story of a businessman and his son who create a bordello in their Geneva home, 8 1/2 Women is inconsequential and boring—and a trial even for the filmmaker's most ardent supporters.
There are contradictions in Greenaway's works, a fact that seems to openly provoke divided opinion. Some would suggest that the fecundity of his vision and intellectual rigor are the stuff of great cinema; others, while admitting his originality, would still look for evidence of a deeper engagement with film as a medium, rather than as a vehicle for ideas. Lauded in Europe, under-distributed in the United States, loved and reviled in his own country, Greenaway is, nevertheless, in an enviable position for a filmmaker.
—Saul Frampton, updated by Rob Edelman