Alone on the sidewalk in front of her house, a little girl (Natalie Morse) jumps rope, counting - and naming - the stars in the night sky. Her hoop skirt juts out alarmingly from her hips; her shadow is huge on the white wall behind her. From corner to corner, the frame is suffused with sienna. A plumed beast thrashes in a corner of the foreground.
An older woman approaches. "What are you doing up so late?" she asks the girl.
"I'm counting the stars."
"There are more than 100."
"I know, but 100 is enough. Once you've counted 100, all the other hundreds are the same."
Satisfied with the girl's explanation, the old woman, Cissie Colpitts (Joan Plowright), shuffles away. Within minutes she will catch her husband Jake (Bryan Pringle) tumbling in a greenhouse with a local trollop. She will kneel beside his gin bath. She will look pensively toward the ceiling. She will drown him. And the film she anchors, Peter Greenaway's Drowning By Numbers, will begin.
Greenaway's films, from his early shorts up through last year's NC-17-conducive The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, have been marked by obsessions with symbolic patterning and gamesmanship. In Drowning By Numbers, the murders themselves serve as the foundation of that framework, and Greenaway has added layers of echo - mathematical, thematic, and even visual. In the small seaside town where Cissie Colpitts lives, mysterious death is hardly a common occurrence, so she enlists the help of her daughter (played by Juliet Stevenson) and granddaughter (Joely Richardson) - both younger women are also named Cissie Colpitts - to keep the crime secret. As luck would have it, the local coroner, Madgett (Bernard Hill), has only two loves - games and Cissie Colpitts (any Cissie Colpitts) - and he agrees to record Jake's death as an alcohol-induced heart attack. For the favor, Madgett asks only that the eldest Cissie accept his amorous advances.
As the plot of the film progresses, the two younger Cissies come to understand Jake's murder as a means of liberation, and by some cross-generational Xerox, they all come to drown their husbands. Always concerned with the power of repeated structure, Greenaway here has created the ultimate pattern - one that requires murder. The act of husband-murder becomes a kind of religion, even to the point where the youngest Cissie, who loves her husband dearly, complies with the sacrament. And, after each murder and cover-up, Madgett repeats his offer: I have helped you, now help me. Sex exchanged for death. Sounds fair enough.
Drowning by Numbers appears to be a matriarchal film, one that relies upon the strength of the three Cissies as its central pillar. And it's true that the men are portrayed as foolish monsters, especially the middle Cissie's corpulent husband Hardy (Trevor Cooper), who chooses food over sex with alarming consistency. But of all the characters in the film, it is Madgett who is most central to its sensibility. With his son Smut (Jason Edwards), a pudgy thirteen-year-old prodigy, Madgett devises elaborate games, such as a wagering competition designed to test the sensitivity of sheep to tidal calendars. In addition to the contest he designs with his father, Smut has other strange obsessions - Samson, for instance, and circumcision, not to mention insects and roadkill - all of which serve as leitmotifs.
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Though they represent the gaming spirit within the film, Madgett and Smut aren't alone in their interest. Greenaway himself subscribes to the same relentless playfulness. Using the skipping girl's opening speech as a cue, the film visually counts from 1 to 100. A printed "3" appears on a burlap bag run over by snails; a red book bears the inscription "22" on its cover. Do these numbers have significance? Well, let me count the ways: reiteration of the artificiality of the Colpitts' murders, creation of sacrament, distraction from the film's cosmetic plot. (There are probably 97 more reasons lurking about, if you care to search for them.)
As usual, Greenaway has upholstered his film nicely, with Sacha Vierney's cinematography and Michael Nyman's Mozart-derived score. As usual, his script moves briskly, though he's limited significantly by the quirky insularity of his characters. And as usual, it is the focus of his vision that sees him through. The themes Greenaway is interested in (obsessed by?) are heady ones - the search for private order in a public world, the mimetic quality of nature, and the human desire to create and destroy. But they are also topics basic to literature. This year's Venice Film Festival featured the debut of Greenaway's latest work - Prospero's Books, a refiguration of The Tempest with narration by John Gielgud. Shakespeare's great romance - the story of the lone magician/king negotiating a re-entrance into the world of men - seems like an inspired choice for Greenaway. We're holding our breath.
DROWNING BY NUMBERS
Written and directed by Peter Greenaway; with Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards, Bryan Pringle, Trevor Cooper, Natalie Morse, Edward Tudor Pole, and Arthur Spreckley. Rated R.
Opens Friday at the Miracle IV, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 443-5201.