The Baby of Mācon (1993) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Tuna's comments in white:
The Baby of Mācon (1993) is Peter Greenway's strangest and most controversial film, and that is saying a lot.
Critical opinion ranges from
"brilliant and possibly his best", through "he went a little too far",
all the way to "absolutely disgusting garbage". Frequently, when it
has been shown in theaters, a large part of the audience has left the
theater. It screened a few times in the US, but was too controversial
to find a distributor. It has just been released on video for the
first time in Australia. Although it is in PAL format, there is no
region code, so those of you who use a computer to watch DVDs can see
A troupe is presenting a play in the palace of the Medicis in the 17th century. They provided entertainment for Medici so he wouldn't have to leave the palace and risk foul play from the rabble outside. The play concerns a perfect baby born of a very old, ugly woman. The baby's grown sister, Julia Ormond, decides the baby is much too pretty to be from the old woman, and decides to say it is hers, and that it was a virgin birth. At the time of the birth, the city of Mācon was experiencing plague and famine, and the women were barren, which made the birth all the more miraculous. Ormond decides to put on a Madonna and Child act, and trades the baby's blessings for favors. Even though this is obvious exploitation of the baby, the blessings seem to lift the curse that has been on the city.
The local bishop, however, who wants to regain the church's power,
sends his son the scientist, Ralph Fiennes, to disprove her claims.
His position is that she is either a liar, and not the baby's mother,
or a whore who had the baby out of wedlock. Ormond decides to seduce
Fiennes, proving her virginity in the process. She arranges the whole
seduction scene in a stable, with the baby in a manger. At this point,
the baby, who realizes that his power depends on her status as a
virgin, demonstrates magical power, and uses a cow to gore Fiennes to
death. The bishop swears revenge on her, and declares that she is too
evil to raise this miraculous child, so makes him a ward of the
Greenway shows sex in a non-erotic way here, and the rape is clearly all violence and no titillation at all, even though we see lengthy full-frontal and nude rear shots from Ormond. He is satirizing any number of things, including divine intervention, the virgin birth, and 17th century politics and economics. He definitely pulled out all the stops here. For me, by the time we got to the rape and mutilation scenes, I was emotionally numb, and was not especially affected by them. For me, it was a little hard to follow, especially since Greenaway intentionally blurred the boundaries between the play and real life, and certainly not a fun watch. It was very powerful, however, and I can always count on Greenaway to show me something very different.
Scoop's comments in yellow:
I guess Tuna's description of the plot is as good as any. Frankly, I'm not too sure what was happening because of the convoluted structure of placing a play within a play within a film, and because it is never really clear who is in the play and who in the audience, nor where the stage actually ends. The audience watching the play makes a good example. Are they part of the play, or are they really supposed to be in the audience as spectators? I got the impression that the royal ugly dudes were the only real audience, and that everyone else was part of the cast, including the "audience." That would explain why the members of the audience always responded conveniently on cue. Or perhaps that was just a touch of surrealism. Then there was the dense, naive DeMedici. Is he a character in the play, or are they performing the play for him? If the latter, then why does he seem to think the play is real? Are we supposed to believe he is that stupid? Or maybe he isn't that stupid, since a lot of the things in the play are real, like the death of several actors in character. Perhaps the royal ugly dude is the only one who understands that the line between stagecraft and reality is a blurry one at best.
And so forth ...
And then, if the whole baby thing is a fake to begin with, all engineered by the sister, then how does it happen that the baby really has magic powers and can command the ox to kill Ralph Fiennes? And if the baby has those magic powers, why doesn't he use them to prevent being killed?
Probably the strangest thing in the entire film is the entire premise of the first scene. The whole legend of the blessed baby is generated because the crowd can't believe that such an ugly mother could give birth to such a beautiful baby. Huh? But, but, but ... Julia Ormond is the baby's sister, so the same mother gave birth to Julia, didn't she? I've noticed that Julia looks pretty decent, so why did the crowd expect any major change from her younger brother?
The entire film is filled with those sorts of "suspension of disbelief" issues, and the line between the play and reality is confusing even when it is explained. Julia Ormond is actually playing an actress who is playing the sister of the baby, right? So how do the other actors, obviously jealous of her, coax a convincing performance? When the time comes for the rape scene, the two hundred actors actually rape her, thus assuring that her acting in that scene will be credible. Of course, this kills her but, what the hell, I guess they don't have to do a matinee the next day, and she probably has an understudy, although I have to think the understudy might have grave doubts about stepping into the role, given what happened to Julia. One thing that was very interesting was the fact that the last few rapists didn't seem to notice that she was dead, so I infer that she didn't die in the middle of the process, or even after the 205th guy, but waited until all 206 were finished.
Oh, well, what can you say? Peter Greenaway lives in his own world. He makes slanted, odd, personal films very similar to the "underground" films that I used to watch in Greenwich Village in the late 60s, except that those Village People didn't have the budget to hire big stars and create elaborate 17th century costumes for a cast of hundreds. Although his films feature extensive male and female frontal nudity, cannibalism, infanticide, explicit gore, and (arguably) the exploitation of child actors, Greenaway is an aesthete, not an exploitation filmmaker. He is obsessed with perspective, clutter, lighting, symmetry, decay, numbers, and the mystical power of counting. The frames of this film about the 17th century look remarkably like the paintings of the same era, and attempt to recreate the techniques used in that century to simulate depth on a flat canvas. (Greenway himself is a serious student of art.)
How many other directors consistently feature classical music, Renaissance aesthetics, and cannibalism together in one place? Ol' Peter Greenaway is truly one of a kind.
One thing which astounds me is that he always seems to manage to get people to pay for his films, even though his previous ones never seem to have sold any tickets. The Baby of Macon didn't even get the customary two week run in a few arthouse venues in the United States. Given its ability to attract controversy without attracting ticket buyers, it disappeared within a week from the very few theaters daring enough to screen it. In some places it was shown a single time (see the review in the Washington Post). Yet the opinion of Greenaway in the artistic community is so reverential and there is so much prestige in working with him, that various art subsidies and national film boards consistently pony up the guilders and pounds he needs to keep producing his small-audience masterpieces.
I did read several comments and reviews about this film, but I never encountered any balanced viewpoints except Tuna's. The rest of the people either said that the film is disgusting and vile, or else said that they despaired for any culture that does not instantly enshrine Greenaway as its resident genius, and that the people who find him disgusting are themselves disgusting and repressed and juvenile.
Frankly, I think every one of them is all wet.
Greenaway is one of those people who reaches for the stars. He tries to make profound points in very powerful and dramatic ways, by using the unusual combination of shock and highbrow aesthetics. The fact that he is an aesthete does not mean he walks on water. One cannot confuse good intentions with execution, just as one cannot assume that every film about the holocaust is a masterpiece. Sometimes Greenaway succeeds, sometimes not. The people who offer him unqualified praise fail to see the glaring failures in his films. I have no objection to his use of surrealism, his destruction of the fourth wall, his obsessions, or his extensive use of nudity and violence. I also appreciate his extensive preparation and his use of the techniques of painting to manufacture unique cinematic images. I admire his willingness to choreograph complicated scenes, rehearse them extensively, and film them in an uninterrupted single take. On the other hand, I often find him high-handed, pretentious, repetitious without justification, and just plain boring. Furthermore, I do not share any of his obsessions. If I had to sit next to this guy at a dinner party, I would try desperately to switch seats, even though I might admire him from afar.
This particular film has a lot of his strengths and a lot of his weaknesses. It has a lot of the pretentiousness of Prospero's Books and the unrelenting tedium of The Draughtsman's Contract. On the other hand, it has some of the brilliant visual composition of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover or A Zed and Two Noughts, some of the camera wizardry of Prospero's Books, and some of the perfectly realized aesthetics of The Pillow Book.
Let us be frank. Greenway's films are brilliant, but aloof. 99% of the people in the world will hate every Greenaway film, even the most accessible ones. The odds are if you are not turned off by his subject matter, you'll be confused by his complexity, or you'll fall asleep when he starts in with the slow, plodding, music and the endless repetition. Even among those in the remaining one percent of the world - filmgoers who like some Greenaway films - 99% of them will hate this one, which combines all of his worst excesses in one script, even though it also features some of his best achievements as well. On the other hand, you may be the one in ten thousand who really craves sharing this intense personal film-making experience, and will appreciate the many and varied talents he puts on display in this film.
I am not one of those.
I did make the first cut. I like some Greenaway films. I like Pillow Book and Drowning by Numbers, for example, and I'm glad I watched many of the others. But this one ... meh! I love Julia Ormond, and I watched it to see her stark naked. If there had been no nudity, I would have shut it off after about ten minutes, not because I was shocked, but because I was bored to tears. Why pretend otherwise?
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