1991-2000ArthousePeter GreenawayUnited Kingdom

Peter Greenaway – The Baby of Mâcon (1993)


In this day and age, I never fail to be surprised at what a repressed culture we still have, despite all our pretensions to the contrary. It may seem that expressions of the extreme are mind-numbingly common in our culture, but look again; in all the sex, violence and depravity we see in our media, is there any attempt, through showing us this continual flood of blood and sex, to tell us anything about their meaning, and why we watch when we claim to be offended and repulsed?

Of course not. The last thing a salesman wants is for you to think. At the very least, it fosters an independence of mind that makes his job harder. We are shown the version of our ids Hollywood and Madison Avenue have taught us to respond to like one of B.F. Skinner’s rats. Tits(and, the ads establish in our heads, therefore beer or cars or virtually anything)equal sex. Guns equal power. We are shown simplistic, filtered shocks carefully tooled to keep our minds in a relaxed, semi-hypnotized state of being vaguely thrilled, but not too occupied to take in the Volvo ad afterward. Bang. And now this. Smooch. And now a word. And so on.

The purpose of the mainstream media is simply to keep a glorious stream of commerce flowing ’round, and they have the power to enforce this now as never before, because of a stupid, lazy public who go to see Joe Eszterhas or Mel Gibson trash at the theatres, or rent it from Blockbuster in versions edited for their protection. God knows what might happen if they started thinking for themselves. And they exploit these at best tacky and at worst prurient and exploitative versions of bits of our world just to take our money, and degrade the minds of all in the process. One wonderful cycle of buggery.

Thus when a work comes along and uses elements of extreme violence and sex in an intellectual, rather than titillating, way designed to shock you into consciousness, to force you to consider the subjects as you may not have before, it is seen as wallowing in these elements for their thrill value, because that’s the only reason mainstream media ever use them. The idea of art as something autonomous and not an ancillary to marketing is fast dying, and it could be argued it’s been dead in the U.S. since the early 90s.

When a film comes along like that,it’s usually shunted right out of public consciousness. It seems that if it cannot be easily advertised or discussed on TV it hasn’t a chance in hell. Worse for that film, if it’s about something that may undermine the very principles upon which their running commercial hallucination depends.

THE BABY OF MACON by Peter Greenaway is one of that sort. It’s a difficult, challenging, brutal, grotesque, and darkly beautiful masterpiece that makes his previous scar to the collective unconscious THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER(1989) look like BABE.

The film was inspired by Greenaway having looked at an advertisement on a billboard featuring an infant as its graphic center of attention. The whole question of using images of innocence to gull people out of their faith, money and lives, and the profanation of said images in the process and the very ideas they represent, is the focus of the film. Greenaway’s obvious burning hatred of said exploitation deliciously poisons every scene.

Following, since most in this country may never see it, is a summary of the film. The story is available in numerous places on the Web and I first read it in a script before finding a copy.after a long intense search. This is a title that requires patience in finding; it has no U.S. distributor and only shows up onh the arthouse circuit infrequently, with prints that usually melt or break. Nevertheless, the plot details are no less shocking when seen for having been heard described. Indeed, reading the script only made me want to see this film more. There are layers of meaning within meaning in this film that can only be understood on seeing it, so I am not ruining anything.

The story is in fact a play being enacted in the 17th-century palace of Cosimo DiMedici(Jonathan Lacey), one of the last of the famous(but by this point declining) Italian merchantile dynastic line. As it is upon his life and good health that the tenuous fortunes of the family depends, they make sure to keep him indoors and so thoroughly entertained he doesn’t leave. He’s quite sheltered, ignorant, credulous and religious in a very bizarre and fanatical way. As this is during the Counter-Reformation, the question of religious faith is quite a central(and bloody) one to the whole plot. The play he watches concerns a reputedly miraculous child born, supposedly, to a virgin(Julia Ormond) in a city poor and devastated by plague, apathy and neglect, whose cathedral(the most important part of the town in the minds of European Catholics of the time, the state of which was taken as a sign of the town’s good or bad fortunes) is falling to ruin. The real mother of the family was quite old and ugly, making it easy to believe such a beautiful child could not be hers, and indeed the mother of the virgin, who locks her away to prevent any question of motherhood. She immediately presents the child–along with herself as madonna–to the public, who come to her asking for miracles. She grants them blessings in exchange for gifts, money, and in one case, prostitution to keep her father busy.

The whole operation is, of course, thoroughly corrupt from the start, and the power goes to the virgin’s head almost immediately, suddenly famous and admired in the only way she ever could be. A proto-scientist(Ralph Fiennes), legitimized bastard son of the local Bishop(and only referred to as The Son), investigates, convinced that either the child is not hers or she is not a virgin. This culminates in a scene in which she tries to prove her virginity to him by making a gift of it. But the child, apparently more miraculous than they had thought, causes the Son to be killed before her precious virginity, also central to HIS myth, can be sullied. The child is taken away by the Church, who continue the exploitation but in a much more coldly efficient way, selling the child’s bodily fluids and excrement–and anything else they can take without killing him–to the public as relics. Business booms. The Virgin sneaks in and smothers the child with a pillow.

Because a virgin cannot be executed, she is given over by the Church to the local militia, who take turns raping her on a bizarre math of the Bishop’s, based multiples of numerous historical precedents he cites, totalling in all 286. Only seven or so are heard or visually hinted at onscreen; it’s never actually shown, because it all takes place behind a curtain, but is far more horrible for only being experienced through Julia Ormond’s sickeningly tortured, terrified and incredibly realistic screams; this is the scene that has prevented this film from finding a U.S. distributor. But it is not itself exploitative; the scene is wrenching and repellent(should a rape scene be pleasant?) but necessary, as it represents the logical culmination of the madness already at work in the story and the story-within-the-story, which melt into one big mess at this point.

Cosimo has been getting in on the action throughout the course of the play, not quite understanding it isn’t real. The actors improvise to include him, not about to offend such a wealthy and gullible patron. But this turns deadly when his actual militia are called upon to participate at this point in the plot. They do not understand it’s just a play either, and really rape the actress playing the Virgin. Her screams are quite real, but ignored. She is quite dead by the end, after which the Church auctions off all it still can of the child–his clothes, his limbs, his head, his skin; where do you think they got the anatomical relics of saints so popular & profitable at the time of the Church’s peak of power?

The rape scene is horrifying, more frightening than the goriest horror film. And the only reason it has this power is Julia Ormond’s blistering talent. Were it not for the convincing screams, the scene might not be so extreme. But again, how should rape be depicted, if at all? The scene is not titillating. The audience of the film is not party to titillation(as was the case in THE ACCUSED, by contrast) because Greenaway, unlike most filmmakers, doesn’t sexualize rape. It presents it as violence, and revolting violence at that, and I can’t imagine anyone finding the concept remotely attractive from having seen this. If anything, it would inspire you to work for a crisis center.

This is an uncompromising study of exploitation and trickery, and the madness of crowds. Of people starved and kept stupid and led around and bled like sheep by those they believe in. It succeeds thoroughly in this. The structuring of the film is brilliant too, with a further surprise in the layering of stories revealed at the very end. It questions our willingness to watch and our appetite for sensation. And as this is Greenaway, it’s all told framed in lush, painterly cinematography & production(mostly in varying intensities of red, as COOK was in shades of green), costume & set design more elaborate and detailed than Kubrick at his most obsessive. Greenaway’s are at the least the best-LOOKING films of the past 20 years. His models for composition are almost entirely in the world of painting, not cinema, and thus you will see no cliches or quotes already recycled a thousand times from filmmakers of the past. What you will see is a masterpiece whose every frame could easily stand alongside the best El Greco or Raphael; I do not overstate. I am glad that Greenaway pursues his obsessions so thoroughly in his work without a thought about popular appeal. We have to have ONE filmmaker left swimming in a culture other than pop.

This, more than anything else, is a horror film; but the horror is in the madnesses humans thinking no more for themselves than sheep do–which is 99% of the time throughout history–are capable of, under the influence of authority, of religion, of fashion, of any catalyst of stupidity you can name.

Hunt this film down.Find it, if you can take something harsh. You’ve never seen anything like this.

2.05GB | 2 h 1 min | 1024×440 | mkv



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