Film Review: Rembrandt's J'Accuse

BOTTOM LINE: An amalgam of genres that is also typically Greenaway.

Pusan International Film Festival
World Cinema
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Combining Derek Jarman's "Caravaggio" and the director's own painterly "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," Peter Greenaway turns fine art into a worthy murder mystery in "Rembrandt's J'Accuse," a docudrama replete with Hitchcockian soundtrack and Everyman witness to a crime.

A wide release is unlikely anywhere in the world, but the Greenaway brand will ensure a limited art house in most large markets. The film's odd spin on the documentary form also should ensure it a place in docu festivals, and Greenaway completists are probably already lining up for the special-edition DVD.

The director himself -- a former art student and painter -- plays detective in this exploration of the message behind Rembrandt's most famous work, "The Night Watch." Taking a step-by-step look at 30 different elements within the canvas, Greenaway argues that a murder conspiracy was revealed in the painting, which later played a part in the artist's ruin. Imagined re-enactments of what the players in the portrait said and/or did in the lead-up to posing for it are spliced between a very PBS talking head (Greenaway's) that illuminates the clues.

This is the same territory Greenaway mined in "Nightwatching," which actually was about Rembrandt painting his masterwork. Returning to the scene of the alleged crime, Greenaway takes on a lot more than just the Dutch elite, and the art snob in him (the one who repeatedly mispronounces the French "j'accuse") comes to the fore. Making it clear he believes that most plebeians are unable to correctly "read" art, Greenaway aims his barbs at text-based education and lazy populaces who don't want to understand art.

But Greenaway is first and foremost a deft storyteller and filmmaker -- and a cheeky art historian. An appreciation of art isn't necessary to enjoy "Rembrandt's J'Accuse," and Greenaway goes to great lengths to draw the artistically illiterate into the story. Before he gets to the central mystery, the film weaves Art History 101 into its runtime and succinctly puts "The Night Watch" into a larger historical context. Whether you agree with his conclusions is moot; getting there is what counts.

Cast: Eva Birthistle, Jodhi May, Emily Holmes, Jonathan Holmes, Michael Telgen, Nathalie Press.
Director-screenwriter: Peter Greenaway.
Producers: Femke Wolting, Bruno Felix.
Director of photography: Reinier van Brummelen.
Production designer: Maarten Piersma.
Music: Giovanni Sollima.
Editor: Elmer Leupen.
Sales agent: Content Film International.
No rating, 89 minutes.
production: Submarine BV, Kasander, Arte France.