Drowning by Numbers is probably my favorite Peter Greenaway film. It’s such a biting film, simple on the outside, beautiful and complicated internally. It reminded me a lot of Georges Perec’s great novel “Life a User’s Manual.”
Is there any film that should be considered more painterly than this one? Not only does Greenaway imitate a lot of famous paintings (I’m certain that I missed hundreds of references), but Sacha Vierny’s amazing cinematography is maybe the closest thing to John Alton’s idea of painting with light.
Three generations of women all named Cissie Colpitts (played, in order of descending age, by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson) murder their husbands by drowning. The lecherous local coroner Madgett (Bernard Hill) agrees to cover their crimes in exchange – he hopes – for sexual favors.
The title refers to the confounding numbers that appear throughout the film placed on props, costumes, and other unpredictable parts of the frame. It also refers to the prologue, where a young girl jumps ropes and counts the stars above her, naming them 1 through 100.
Why the numbers? In some sense it feels like Greenaway’s numbering of his vignettes as a collector might number her canvases. There’s also something of the “time-bomb narrative” in here: the numbers are a countdown to inevitability.
But the numbers also break the film down to its constituent parts, almost like a paint-by-numbers. Two runners wear numbers 70 and 71 (and hilariously keep popping back up in the film, still dressed in running gear and wearing the same numbers); old wooden crates are #42; #32 is painted in yellow on blacktop:
It’s like Greenaway is keeping the original “canvas” intact and asking us to separate things out to their earlier states – when they weren’t in the film – when a crate was just a crate and not a prop in a murder mystery.
Narratively, Drowning by Numbers is a great testament to the female spirit. The three Cissie Colpitts are indomitable, and casually so. Maybe, Greenaway seems to say, these are one woman – the same woman, and three generations have just been compressed into one time period, showing her independence throughout the years. Why else name them all Cissie Colpitt? It’s at the least a shot of solidarity.
I was definitely reminded of de Chirico when watching this film:
And then there are frames like these:
These pastorals and nightime (nightmare) scenes feel like they’re quoting something; what that is, I don’t know. But painterly reference aside, Greenaway and Vierny’s eyes are fantastic. Some of this is just classic compositional values with excellent location scouting, while others (the second one above, in particular) are gorgeous examples of light and motion.
Betrayal, jealousy, and murder have always been pretty present in Greenaway. And sex, too. Drowning by Numbers is no exception. On top of those themes, the film is maybe his funniest. It doesn’t have the controversy of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, or the sensuality of The Pillow Book, but it’s the director in top form.