The history of artists working away from their homeland is rich with tales of creative flowerings: wide-eyed Paul Gauguin dispatching to Tahiti and expanding his palette, wacked-out Salvador Dalí descending on Paris to find a melting pot of artistic cross-pollination, globetrotting Orson Welles sticking it to American financiers by creating some of his most daring work in new lands, and Andrei Tarkovsky transcending both his nostalgia for his motherland and a rapidly deteriorating body with a series of deeply personal art films.
Somewhere adjacent to this history is the curious case of Sergei Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico, which serves as the subject of Eisenstein in Guanajuato. Most accounts stress the artistic failure of the venture. Eisenstein was sent there on the dime of Upton Sinclair and his wife, both of whom were sympathetic to the storied Russian’s wish to evade the Stalin regime, and essentially granted carte blanche, an opportunity he proceeded to squander through negligence. While we know of the subsequent tense contract negotiations that stopped ¡Que Viva México! short of completion, we’re comparatively in the dark about why exactly Eisenstein’s project went awry, aside from a few tantalizing bits of evidence like the director’s passionate acquaintance with a local guide who indulged his fascination with Mexican heritage, or the slanderous shipment of a trunkload of lecherous scribbles depicting homoerotic and sacrilegious acts to a displeased Sinclair.
It’s easy to see why Peter Greenaway, a filmmaker whose zeal for art history coincides in his films with an abiding fondness for the gluttonous and the grotesque, would take these bits and run with them, dreaming up an embellished history that takes as a given that Eisenstein was a repressed homosexual awakened by a south-of-the-border bacchanalia. Within the first 10 minutes, Greenaway treats us to the spectacle of a showering Eisenstein (gregariously embodied by Elmer Bäck in an obnoxious torrent of rolled R’s) instructing his own penis to exercise restraint in this strange new land, noting that he “needs [its] frustrations to feed [his] imagination.”
Eisenstein’s virginity, and his misguided embrace of it as creative fuel, is emphasized early and often. In fact, the film overstates his boyish purity to such an extent that the frenetic visuals used to depict his first introductions to Mexican culture—a notably Eisenstinian collage of busy, dialectical montage and triptych split screens that lend Greenaway’s widescreen canvas the look of a rolled-out film strip—start to seem an outgrowth of the Moscow visitor’s naïveté. Speedy circular tracking shots are a repeated motif, implying a perpetual, aimless motion, but no forward momentum.
Seeing through Eisenstein’s self-delusions is his escort, the suave Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), who’s quick to identify that the director’s flamboyance, his rhapsodizing with profuse hand gestures on famous acquaintances and lavish travels, is a dead giveaway. At the film’s fulcrum is a lengthy scene in which Cañedo, after a series of intimate conversations studded with wink-winks, coaxes Eisenstein into intercourse right in the visiting artist’s princely quarters. Tellingly, Greenaway slows the film to a seductive simmer here, doing away with the almost cubist excess to settle on a traditional mix of static master shots and shot/reverse-shot editing, a relative placidity that the film more or less retains for the remainder of its running time.
As he oils up Eisenstein’s backside and uncouthly enters him, Cañedo indulges a metaphorical monologue that links his partner’s initiation to Aztec history, the European colonization of the Americas, and the spread of syphilis to Europe. It’s a heady and transparently ridiculous come-on that’s intended as a way of easing Eisenstein’s reservations by acknowledging a unified field connecting the Old and New World, Mexican genetics to European heredity—essentially a long way of saying “one love.” Then, in post-coital close-up, a blissful Eisenstein catches Cañedo’s drift by conflating his sexual awakening with his native country’s history, lamenting that “Russia lost its virginity” by the end of the revolution and that he was “14 years too late.” Topping off the scene is a shock cut to clips from October set to triumphant orchestral music.
It’s tempting to read this dense sequence and its droll punchline as the heart of a Greenaway thesis suggesting that Eisenstein’s art was hampered, for 14 years to be exact, by the suppression of his real identity. But what does it say that Eisenstein in Guanajuato equates its subject’s world-famous, paradigm-shifting cinematic approach with a crisis in personal development? Rather than retroactively throwing shade on the filmmakers’ accomplishments (Greenaway’s frequent intercutting of archival clips from Eisenstein’s films makes his admiration evident enough), the film casts its focus on the dynamic between the director’s newfound albeit transgressive maturation and the various stumbling blocks that prevented him from bearing it out. Its second half devolves into a string of frustrations when Mary Sinclair (Lisa Owen) and her brother, Hunter Kimbrough (Stelio Savante), materialize out of nowhere to terminate the agreement with Upton’s purchased prodigy, and it’s not long after Greenaway’s cyclical dolly shots return with a vengeance that Eisenstein’s sent packing, hurt and disoriented.
What the film implicitly speculates upon, then, is the question of what fresh creative muscles might have gone unflexed as a result of this bureaucratic fiasco, what paths Eisenstein could never take in light of his enforced return to the Soviet Union. The correlation between spiritual imprisonment and stifled bodily urges is familiar terrain for Greenaway, and Eisenstein in Guanajuato, despite some off-putting digital effects, is a Greenaway film through and through: Penises are so routinely observed in close-up that they deserve top billings, tidy symmetry is the preferred compositional mode, and there’s at least one show-stopping lateral dolly move in which space appears in flux before the camera’s gaze. Greenaway’s habit of repeating old tics and playing around with virtuosic form for the sake of it might give off the impression of a director bored with his material, but what comes through clearly by the end of the film is the act of one artist’s eccentric generosity breathing new awareness into the life of another.