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Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers
A Film Review by Ted Prigge

Copyright 1998 Ted Prigge

Writer/Director: Peter Greenaway Starring: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stephenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards, Bryan Pringle, Trevor Cooper, David Morrissey, Kenny Ireland, Michael Percival. 

Explaining the plot of "Drowning by Numbers" almost makes it seems like a high-concept film: one that can be explained in about one sentence (if that). In fact, my one film book has one very short sentence explaining the film, as well as their thoughts on it:

"Three women decide to drown their husbands." This is essentially what goes on in this film, making it easy to explain to anyone who asks what it's about. The weird thing is that behind the simplicity of the concept, the film is one of the most engagingly frustrating films to watch. You watch it once, maybe even twice, and you're suddenly set off on a cinematic puzzle, desperately trying to figure out what you've just seen and comprehend it.

"Drowning by Numbers" tells the story of three generations of women, a delightful trio all named Cissie Colpitts: there's the mother, played by Joan Plowright (who has the ability to give a unique droll dignity to any film she's in); her older daughter, played by Juliet Stephenson (from "Truly, Madly, Deeply"); and the younger, spunkier daughter, played by Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave. Over the course of the film, they all drown their respective husbands, starting off with the mother, who starts the trend when she catches her husband with another woman, realises she's had enough of him, and pushes his head underneath the water level of a bath tub his wading in.

Their shenanigans is easily covered up by the local coroner, Madgitt (Bernard Hill, perhaps known to American audiences as the Captain in "Titanic," although you wouldn't recognise him here), who lies on his statements, and requests that his payment for his crooked deeds be that he's given some sex from each of the women, none who fully cooperate. All the while, the film introduces us to games that Madgitt and his son, Smut (Jason Edwards), play constantly, with Smut narrating the rules of how to play them.

Just to make things more frustrating for the audience, as well as more fun, the film gives us numbers throughout the film that are marked either conspicuously (the film shows a copy of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" as one of the numbers) or blatantly (on the rump of two cows), but nevertheless are shown in order for the audience to count up as the film goes along. While this may seem like just a fun thing to do throughout the film, to count your way until the ending, for others, it introduces a bizarre mix to the story, further complicating it as to why it, as well as the references to numerous games, is included in the context of the film, and how it relates to all the other elements.

The film was directed by Peter Greenaway, who directed one of my all-time favourites, "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," a film that is as fascinating story-wise as it is visual-wise. I have once said that he is probably the best director of mise-en-scene ever, or at least working today. "Drowning by Numbers" is no exception. It's a gorgeous-looking film, almost coming off as a living Rembrandt painting.

Greenaway often works with many of the same crew members for his films, and it's obvious why: they're so damn good at what they do. Sacha Vierny, the Director of Photography, and who's worked with Resnais and Bunuel on some of their films, definitely has an eye for making a shot look absolutely beautiful, so much that most of the frames in this film, and some of Greenaway's other films, could be framed and sold as artwork. Another one of his members is Michael Nyman, the film composer (who's also worked on "The Piano" and "Gattaca"), who's beautiful background music effortlessly gives every scene the right tone that Greenaway is going for, even if much of it is redundant (and recylced in or from other Greenaway films). Give Nyman a couple years and I'll easily say that he's the best film composer since Bernard Herrman.

One of the reasons I like Greenaway's films so much is because not only are they gorgeous piece of art, but they stimulate the mind, making it work hard to understand not so much what's going on, but why they are placed together in the first place. "Drowning by Numbers" is basically a living puzzle. We struggle to look at every shot as a piece in the puzzle, wondering why things are happening, and why they are included in this film. At first glance it seems like a mixture of a bunch of different puzzles, where some pieces fit together but don't make up the same thing.

This approach is often criticised for distancing the audience from the film, looking down at them and laughing at them for not being able to understand what's going on. This is because the ambiguity is so high, and it's almost impossible to understand Greenaway's intentions for placing so many weird devices together in one film. Why are there numbers throughout the film? Why are game rules introduced? Why did he make it? All of this is anyone's guess.

My theory? The film is making fun of order and trends, and showing them for what they are. The first drowning is almost understood, as the husband had been cheating on her for years, and it's almost like he received his just desserts for being such a bastard. But the following ones have a gradual descent into obscurity, being done possibly as a trend of what the first one was, and lacking the reasoning and intensity that the first one had. There's also other kinds of trends in the film, like Smut who follows all sorts of rules of games to a T, and does whatever a little girl, who jumpropes throughout the film, says (like circumcising, for instance). There are the games that are introduced that show rule following at their peak. And, of course, there are the numbers, that give the film a sense of order and duration, that it will only last as long as there are 100 numbers (after 100, everything becomes bland, as the film points out).

What I got out of the film was a sense of order and trends becoming stale after awhile, and a loss of originality and passion lacking after awhile. The numbers, at first intriguing and fascinating, become redundant, and soon lose the lustre they once had. He seems to be saying that traditions cause people who honour them to forget why they were started in the first place, and instead do them because they just think they ought to. At least that's what I got out of it.

Is this what Greenaway was going for? I have no clue. But such is the fun of ambiguity. We can try and make up explanations of films like this, never knowing if we're right or not, but intrigued as to whether we are or not. It's one of the reasons I like Greenaway's films so much. As he's an acquired taste, many people may be put off by his lack of an easy-to-understand message. But even if you can't understand this film at all, and have no clue what he was going for, "Drowning by Numbers" is still incredibly entertaining. It has a playful, humorous nature, filled with a giddy kind of tone, and is endlessly fascinating, never becoming boring, probably because it's so complex and at times frustrating. That's why Greenaway gets away with this film, which would be a big disappointment for probably any other director.

MY RATING (out of 4): ***1/2