Rembrandt's murder mystery

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Peter Greenaway, the British director who was educated as a painter, first came to wide attention in 1982 with The Draughtsman’s Contract, a silky comedy about seventeenth-century aristocrats. Greenaway then promptly set out not to build on this success, undertaking one eccentric film project after another. It was almost as if he were determined not to grow cumulatively, as most of the best directors have done. Of the Greenaway works that I have seen, only two of them--quite unlike each other--stand out in memory. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was a modern comedy that revealed how sex can be achieved in restaurant restrooms. Prospero’s Books, a slanted view of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, put the future in debt to Greenaway by preserving John Gielgud’s exquisite reading of Prospero.

Now Greenaway turns to the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse is a study of that painter’s most famous work, The Night Watch, and though it certainly is a study, it is also--or primarily--a fascinating film. Greenaway has a thesis, possibly stated previously in the mountain of publications about Rembrandt. The painting, familiar to millions, shows a group of civilian militiamen in Amsterdam rousing to an alarm. Greenaway’s film sets out to prove that the painting is really an exposé of a murder--of one officer by another. Twenty points, all visual, are made to support this thesis.

He embeds his inquiry in an attractive style, decked with dramatized expeditions into Rembrandt’s life, with scrutiny of details in the painting that makes us realize we have never looked carefully enough. In the low center of the screen through most of the picture is Greenaway himself, speaking about what we are seeing. He is always lucid and crisp, never didactic. Meanwhile, the screen keeps fragmenting around him into various shots of Night Watch details, or overriding him as we go back to Rembrandt’s Amsterdam and the creation of this painting...

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