Just three months after the first chapter in the Tulse Luper saga premiered in competition in Cannes comes a continuation that's more of an expansion of the last third of the first film. Peter Greenaway's "Life History in 16 Episodes" was to consist of "at least" three feature films, a TV series consisting of 16 40-minute episodes, a Web site and DVDs.
Just three months after the first chapter in the Tulse Luper saga premiered in competition in Cannes comes a continuation that’s more of an expansion of the last third of the first film. Peter Greenaway’s ambitious “Life History in 16 Episodes” was, according to information in Cannes, to consist of “at least” three feature films as well as a TV series consisting of 16 40-minute episodes, plus a Web site and numerous DVDs. But it’s difficult to determine where the film that preemed in Venice fits into the scheme of things — and no press books were on hand to offer a solution.The Cannes film supposedly was subtitled “The Moab Story,” though this title did not appear onscreen. Similarly, this second feature in the series supposedly was subtitled “Antwerp” (again, not onscren). It was referred to in the opening titles as “Episode 3.” The original film constituted three “episodes” and featured 21 of the 92 suitcases Greenaway has planned to “open” in the unfolding of his eponymous hero’s life story. The new film backtracks, re-examining ground covered in the first film. Indeed, instead of constituting the second part of the promised trilogy, this film seems to be an extra, almost like an expanded DVD version. For the record, it covers suitcases 15-28, so it takes us only seven stages past the Cannes film, while including a lot of material previously covered, but here in even more detail. Briefly, Welshman Tulse Luper (JJ Feild), a journalist who writes about Belgian natural history for the London Times and the Manchester Guardian, is, in 1938, suspected of being a British spy by fascist agents and is incarcerated in what appears to be a gigantic bathroom somewhere in Antwerp’s central railway station. Station master and fascist leader Erik von Hoyten (Jack Wouterse) and the station’s combination doctor-dentist, Jan Palmerion (Jordi Molla), along with various underlings, keep the Brit under guard, but they don’t stop his sexual liaisons with American Passion Hockmeister (Caroline Dhavernas), a cheerful hedonist, or stenographer and femme fatale Cissie Colpitts (Valentina Cervi). As before, it’s difficult to extrapolate a clear narrative from the mass of statistical information Greenaway hurls at his audience. He plays with film form, splitting the image, repeating lines of dialogue and moments of action (often erotic), while narrators appear in tiny squares on the image in a vain attempt to explain what’s going on. There is a vast amount of naked flesh on display, and most of the major characters have full frontal action during the course of the wayward drama. Last image of the film, which has “to be continued…” in place of end credits, consists of all 92 of the suitcases laid out, unopened, on the station platform. The film is scattered with dry jokes and aphorisms (example: Most Belgians would like to live in Paris and those who don’t, want to live in London) and, along with the nudity, there’s a fair level of stylized violence, including castration. As with all Greenaway films, literary and artistic allusions abound, and the viewer is expected to be pretty up to date with art movements of the last 100 years. Once again, the actors aren’t called upon to give detailed performances as much as they are to expose themselves with as much good humor as they can muster. In this respect, Feild, Dhavernas and Cervi come off best. To say this is very much an acquired taste is putting it mildly, and with the prospect of at least two more feature films in the offing, plus all those DVDs, producer Kees Kasander and his co-producers must be hoping mightily that this singular concept catches on.