[20 September 2009]

By David Ray Carter

Nightwatching sees a return to form for Peter Greenaway as well as a revisiting of many themes prevalent in his earlier work. Greenaway’s primary obsessions with art and mystery are at the forefront of the film and are woven together as intricately as the Rembrandt painting at the center of the mystery. The director employs his talent for historical recreation to bring the Netherlands of the 1600s to life; a lush backdrop for Nightwatching’s tale of murder, sex, and aristocratic debauchery. Greenaway’s inventive exploration of the story behind the creation of Rembrandt’s most famous work was made in conjunction with a series of multi-medium art installations exploring classical paintings.

Nightwatching begins with Rembrandt waking from a horrible nightmare; one in which he is blinded by an angry mob. His beautiful young servant Hendrickje reassures him that he is fine but the painter is reminded of the frailty of his gift and how quickly it could be taken from him.

His wife and manager, Saskia encourages him to accept a commission for a portrait the local militia has requested in honor of the arrival of Mary Stuart to their country. The outspoken artist quickly makes his feelings clear on the matter: absolutely not. Rembrandt has no respect for the ineffectual and unproven militiamen and, as a miller’s son thrust into the world of the wealthy by his talent, even less desire to cater to the whims of the spoiled aristocrats whom comprise its ranks. Reluctant to immediately decline the offer, Rembrandt has a bit of fun mocking the soldiers by forcing them to take on a variety of ludicrous poses and frequently raising the price of the work in the process.

Two events occur that change his outlook on taking the commission. The first is the announcement that Saskia is pregnant. The hefty sum Rembrandt will receive upon completion will be more than enough to provide for their child; a fact that Saskia takes pains to remind him of at every opportunity. But the second event is the one that tips the scales for Rembrandt, however, as it appeals to his intellectual curiosity rather than his finances. 

Militia captain Hasselburg is shot through the eye during a routine training exercise, opening the door for the wealthy Banning Cocq family to assume leadership of the guard. Of the militiamen, Rembrandt found Hasselburg – and his second-in-command Egremont – to be the most honorable, and the mysterious nature of his death causes him to take a closer look at his fellow soldiers. He accepts the commission in an effort to keep a closer watch on those he believes to be in on the conspiracy.

He finds that the murder of Hasselburg is not the only secret the militiamen are keeping. The pious Kemp is using his orphanage as a brothel and becomes the focus of much of Rembrandt’s outrage. His obsession with the murder of Hasselburg is compounded by the failing health of Saskia – he turns his feeling of helplessness about her condition into a drive to uncover the truth. 

After Saskia’s death, Rembrandt turns all of his energy into solving the mystery and exposing the conspirators through his painting. He toils away on the painting unaware – or, perhaps, uncaring – of the toll following his obsessions will take on him personally and professionally, especial when he is doing so at the expense of some of the Netherlands’ wealthiest men.

Nightwatching sees Greenaway utilizing the same spirit of innovation that Rembrandt employed in the creation of The Night Watch. Typical militia/soldier portraits of the era were static shots of the men in their best finery, rigidly posed and staring straight at the viewer. The Night Watch depicts its subjects in motion, each looking in different directions and clearly concerned about something. 

Greenaway uses an inversion of Rembrandt’s technique to break with cinematic conventions. Rather than going about their business unaware of the audience, the characters break the fourth wall at several points to address the audience directly. These aren’t Shakespearean asides; they are staged like interviews with the characters seated or standing in the center of the frame and talking as if responding to a question. 

Just as Rembrandt’s work was criticized for being “too theatrical” and making the men look like actors rather than soldiers, by inverting the technique Greenaway turns theatrics and actors into something more relatable, more human.  The technique also makes pacing less problematic as many events are told, rather than shown. 

Though the creation of the painting is Nightwatching’s main plot, a good portion of the film is a character study of Rembrandt the man and not Rembrandt the artist. Sarcastic, vulgar, romantic, and insecure, Rembrandt may be one of classical art’s most interesting figures. Martin Freeman (The Office UK, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) turns in a virtuoso performance as Rembrandt, playing him as a loveable asshole/genius akin to television’s Dr. House. Freeman gives us a man who is simultaneously larger-than-life and fragile and a good deal of the film’s success is due to his performance.

Fans of Greenaway will immediately recognize the similarities between the plot of Nightwatching and that of his second feature, The Draughtsman’s Contract. The earlier film told the story of an artist, talented but a commoner, who becomes ensnared in a murder plot conceived by his aristocratic clients. As in Nightwatching, he incorporates clues into his works but is dealt with severely by the conspiracy of those he tried to expose. 

The similarities are unmistakable, but Nightwatching is a more mature film. The Draughtsman’s Contract was a visual work; a study of forms and elaborately staged – or posed – like a painting.  Nightwatching feels more organic, more alive; a quality that again is brought to the film largely by Freeman’s performance.

Koch Lorber’s DVD of Nightwatching is available in a two-disc special edition. The print of the film on the first disc is excellent, brilliantly displaying the evocative colors of Greenaway’s pallet. The second disc contains the documentary Rembrandt’s J’Accuse in which Greenaway explores some of the theories behind the painting in greater detail. The documentary is excellent and would be an appealing release on its own but most viewers will find the combined four hours of material in the release to be overkill. However, if you share Greenaway’s passion for art history and mystery you’ll find the documentary invaluable.

Though I am loathe to make the comparison, Greenaway is encroaching on The Da Vinci Code’s territory with his tale of hidden messages in paintings, conspiracy theories, and murder. One can only assume that it is coincidence given that Greenaway’s body of work is decidedly uncommercial and very much dedicated to his own personal vision. If one were to take a conspiratorial view of Nightwatching—much like Greenaway himself does in the film’s plot – you could posit that the similarities aren’t merely a coincidence, nor was the casting of the star of a cult television hit as the lead actor. 

Intentional or not, Nightwatching is one of Greenaway’s most accessible works to date; unlike some of his early work, this is a film that wouldn’t be too out of place at a local American cinema.  As an admirer of Greenaway’s films, I have to say that is a good thing.

Rembrandt\'s Night Watch (partial)

Rembrandt\‘s Night Watch (partial)

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