The A.V. Club recently ran a list — an “inventory” in the site’s parlance — of “Micropics: 18 narrowly focused biopics that need to be made,” and while no one suggested Sergei Eisenstein’s adventures in Mexico — perfect subject matter for the depiction of an extraordinary artist at the crossroads of history, geography, politics, his career, and his sexuality — perhaps that’s only because Peter Greenaway beat them to it. “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” ostensibly relates the great Soviet director’s time in Mexico filming his unfinished epic “¡Que Viva Mexico!” on Upton Sinclair’s dime, but Greenaway seems less interested in the details of Eisenstein’s art-making than in forming his Mexican experience into extravagant tableaux of gay desire. Tellingly, the most prominent location in “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” is not the Mexican landscape or a dark screening room but Eisenstein’s bedroom, a massive playground for Greenaway’s dizzying 360 dolly shots. Eisenstein’s most prominently featured art is not “¡Que Viva Mexico!” or his earlier silent masterpieces but his lewd pornographic drawings.
White-suited, wild shock of curly hair blowing in the wind, Eisenstein (Finnish actor Elmer Bäck) arrives in Mexico looking like a mad scientist crossed with a clown. He acts that way, too — Doc Brown telling Yakov Smirnoff jokes. After bounding around the U.S., failing to make a film and spending most of his time hanging with Chaplin, Disney, and an assortment of leftist artists and entertainers, Eisenstein has come to Mexico to make a paean to revolution. Instead, in Greenaway’s telling, he finds himself spending most of his time with his designated Guanajuato guide Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti), a thin mustachioed Mexican with whom he will carry on an intensely sexual affair. In one of the film’s most striking and tender scenes — maybe the tenderest I’ve ever scene in a Greenaway movie — Palomino pops Eisenstein’s cherry just as Russia celebrates the fourteenth anniversary of the Revolution.
Greenaway focuses so tightly on Eisenstein’s sexual awakening that we often forget what he’s doing in Mexico in the first place. When Upton Sinclair’s wife Mary shows up to inquire just what exactly Eisenstein has been doing with her husband’s money, it comes as a shock to learn that he has shot some 250 miles of film. Eisenstein’s protestations that he has been hard at work on his masterpiece ring pretty hollow.
“Eisenstein in Guanajuato,” like all of Greenaway’s work (even the explicitly art-focused films) is less about the production of art than the irresolvable feud between Eros and Thanatos, Sex and Death. The film makes a rather disappointing “micropic,” but if one is willing to engage with it on its own terms, it is a likably zany arthouse historical sex dramedy. Greenaway’s monologistic writing can get a bit wearying over the course of 105 minutes, but he has pulled out all the stylistic stops here, indulging in quick cuts (an homage to Eisenstein, no doubt), screen trisection, archival footage and photographs (when a historical personage shows up, Greenaway often gives us an actual photo for comparison), multiple takes of the same line, dizzying dolly shots, perspective-warping CGI (much of it garishly cheap-looking), and surrealistic touches like a blind Mayan bellringer. There are also a lot of penises.
Greenaway’s style frequently overwhelms his content. It can be hard to focus on what a character is saying when he’s jumping around on a bed with no pants on, his penis flopping wildly, while the camera swoops around the room like a souped-up Roomba. One particular sequence features a series of seamlessly stitched-together shots showing the same actors in different locations and points in time as the camera smoothly pans across the set. It is a virtuoso move, but one used for a dramatically inert argument about the finances for “¡Que Viva Mexico!”. Still, it’s fun to watch.
And that’s the thing. I’m not sure I understand Eisenstein or Mexico or filmmaking or anything else much better after seeing this movie, but I had a pretty good time watching it.