Drowning by Numbers  (1988) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I was ready to shut this movie off during the opening credits. A young girl skips rope as she names the stars in the cadence of her count to 100. "13 - Rigel, 14 ... " - get it? Now you'd think most filmmakers would pick up this little symbol at a point near its end, but not Peter Greenaway. We see the whole count in real time. I nearly fell asleep before the movie title appeared, thinking it was going to be a Greenaway pretension-fest like Prospero's Books.

I'm glad I didn't give up.

Of course, it never did become a normal movie. This is one weird effort, a Salvador Dali painting come to life, but beneath the madness it is also a charming entertainment. The counting to 100 in the rope-jump prefigures the appearance of the numbers one through a hundred in sequence throughout the movie. It's fun after a while to see if you can spot them or to predict their appearance.

The plot, such as it is, centers around three women with the same name who all drown their husbands, with the assistance of the coroner, an inveterate gamesman who protects the women from the law in return for sexual favors. It's quirky, personal filmmaking, and the main characters are all utterly amoral. I'm assuming they really are three separate women, but that is by no means certain. Maybe they aren't real at all. They are, but they aren't.

Does the plot really matter? It's a black comedy, and a puzzle. "The play's the thing."

Who else but Peter Greenaway could have written the dryly amusing script? Who else but Greenaway could have imagined the ethereal landscape, which was not unlike Prospero's Island in Greenaway's version of The Tempest. The visual presentation is poetic and rich with symbols. One might even say "cluttered with symbols", or just plain "cluttered." The camera angles are unusual, befitting the material photographed.  For my money, nobody creates a richer texture of visual imagery than Greenaway, and his vision is truly unique. You will not mistake this film for the work of any other director.

For me, the only disappointment was an unsatisfying ending. Besides the ones I mentioned, the other main character in the film is the coroner's bizarre number-obsessed son, who narrates, and actually does most of the numbering that marks the progress of the film. The ultimate fate of that boy-narrator seemed unduly harsh to me. Oh, I guess this was how it had to end. I couldn't come up with a better solution to the puzzle, but I just wanted some of the characters to fare better than they did. Still and all, it was Greenaway's game, and that's how he played it.

I'm not sure why anyone financed this film, because the potential audience is small, but I sure liked it. I have seen nine of Greenaway's movies, and this is my favorite.



  • This film is not available on Region 1 DVD. The info to the left is for the VHS tape that will play in the USA and Canada.
  • It is available in Australia on a licensed region-free DVD (no features, 4:3 aspect ratio), which you can order here from an American importer.


  • David Morrissey is seen naked from the side in a sex scene with Joely Richardson, then naked under water.
  • Bernard Hill is seen naked from the rear.
  • Bryan Pringle shows his buns.
  • We see Trevor Cooper's penis as he sleeps.
  • Joely Richardson shows her breasts several times, and gives a brief flash of her crotch.
  • Juliet Stevenson does lower frontal nudity and shows one breast.
  • Jane Gurnett does full frontal and rear nudity in a long, drunken bath scene.
  • There is also a stripper who shows breasts in a short scene.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Roger Ebert did not enjoy the film, awarding only two stars.

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed $400,000 in the USA, in an arthouse run.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Original, eccentric arthouse film. Brilliant, but for a small select audience.

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