From the first time I heard about Eisenstein in Guanajuato, it sounded like a movie had been made just for me: the story of a young filmmaker who has a same sex relationship in Guanajuato. Some of that is not entirely unlike my own life, although there are substantial differences and I live in a very different era. And it did not disappoint in portraying any of these things.
Peter Greenaway’s most famous films include The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Pillow Book, and Eisenstein in Guanajuato lives up to those standards of stunning visuals and some of the boldest and most erotic sex scenes ever filmed. No detail of Guanajuato is wasted as the tunnels, callejones, mummies, graveyard, mountains and especially Teatro Juarez are all done justice.
When Sergei Eisenstein began his career it was the beginning of the medium of the whole moving picture thing, and the film captures the sense of wonder that he had as he sought to discover ways to realize the potential of the new technology at his fingertips; his desire to go to Mexico was a desire to have this sort of cinematic freedom. Today film is not really seen as a new medium, but Greenaway treats it like it is, using the latest video effects to do things rarely seen in mainstream movies. While Eisenstein is credited with inventing the montage, or showing separate shots of different things to create an overall effect, Greenaway uses a split screen to show three images at once, or a simultaneous montage. In this case it is often done by combining historical footage of Eisenstein’s trip and of that era with the new footage of the movie. With his stylized approach, it mostly works, although at times it is a little dizzying; editors have not yet learned how to get back the organic feel from when film was cut together by hand.
This is actually the boldest statement of the film: that the medium of film is still young, with lots to be discovered and experimented with. Though for some, the gay sex scenes and male nudity will be seen as provocative. Personally I thought it those were the most elegant and gentle parts of the film.
This was the opening gala film of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, where it was introduced as a joyful political statement of official Russian history and a celebration of queer sexuality. The film pulsates with energy with its embrace of film history, sexuality, of Mexico with its architecture, landscape and rich culture, and of deep conversations about life and history. This is reflected in the performances of Elmer Back as Eisenstein, who is jubilant throughout, and Luis Alberti as Palomino, his guide and lover, who smoulders.
If there’s one flaw it’s that it sometimes gets a bit carried away with all of the things it is trying to do. It’s a little tricky to review it after just one viewing and I can’t wait to see it again. Either way, I’ll take overambitious and eclectic over conventional and mundane any day. I hope viewers and filmmakers see this and appreciate the risks that are taken in telling such a bold story in such a vibrant way.
For those of you in Vancouver, it will play again on August 22nd at 4:30.