Maverick helmer Peter Greenaway’s long-in-the-works Tulse Luper project, subtitled “A Life History in 16 Episodes,” is planned to consist of “at least” three feature films, a television series of 16 40-minute episodes, books, a website and DVDs which will elaborate on each of the 92 suitcases featured in the eventual film. Just how successful this enormously ambitious multi-media extravaganza will be is anybody’s guess, but, on the strength of the first feature film, which covers three of the proposed 16 episodes and 21 of the 92 suitcases which will eventually be opened, it may be a rocky road commercially. Greenaway has his loyal fans, and they’ve been eagerly awaiting the Tulse Luper story, but the director’s characteristically overwhelming — and at the same time distancing — approach to cinema is unlikely to find him many new adherents. “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Matrix” this is not, and though there will be solid cult interest, pics are likely to be presented on the margins of commercial cinema. Ancillary will be stronger, but whether it will be enough to recoup the huge investment involved is another matter.
Though the press book calls this first feature “The Moab Story,” this title does not appear readily on screen. In fact, it’s almost impossible in one viewing to encompass everything that does appear, because of the director’s penchant for overlapping imagery and his use of copious titles (sometimes overlaid by the French subtitles in the print caught at Cannes). Hence the importance, presumably, of the proposed DVDs, which will provide more time to digest the vast wealth of information on display.
Greenaway has always been obsessed with cataloguing and with lists. He is in his element here, with a film not so much a biography as a scatological assembly of facts and figures spanning 1928 to 1989; Part One ends just after the outbreak of World War II. He pauses from time to time to open a new suitcase — the first contains coal; the 21st, the last opened in Part One, contains cleaning materials –and as each new character appears onscreen, he identifies them numerically. Luper, presumably the director’s alter ego, was first mentioned in some of Greenaway’s early films, as was the alluring Cissie Colpitts and some of the other characters. The director’s fans will have a field day with the mass of self-referential material here, which includes excerpts from past Greenaway films like “Water Wrackets,” “A Zed and Two Noughts” and “The Belly of an Architect.”
After unfolding the credits over what is purported to be audition scenes for some of the principal actors, the film proper begins with 10-year-old Tulse Henry Purcel Luper living in a suburban street in South Wales (Greenaway’s birthplace). These scenes, similar to Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” unfold on a deliberately artificial studio-set street, and are accompanied by a narrator, or Luper expert, whose image is seen in small postage-stamp-size inserts.
Luper and his best friend, Martino Knockavelli, are playing in the backyards of the red-brick houses when a building collapses on Tulse after he signs his name on the wall; as punishment, his father locks him in his room for three hours, which will be the first of a proposed 16 prison scenes, one per episode, planned for the trilogy.
In Episode 2, set in 1934, Luper, played by JJ Feild (the actor seen as the young Michael Caine in “Last Orders”) and Martino (Drew Mulligan) are searching for abandoned Mormon cities in the desert. Here, Luper’s strange involvement with a German-American family results in another imprisonment, though an agreeable one, thanks to the charms of Passion Hockmeister (Caroline Dhavernas).
Episode 3 takes place in Antwerp and mostly centers on a large railway station. Here we meet the alluring Cissie Colpitts (Valentina Cervi) and Luper falls afoul of Nazis who imprison him yet again.
It is a challenge to extrapolate a clear narrative from this mass of information and statistical data. Greenaway’s style is a remote one; he uses no close-ups, which severely limits close identification. Still, there’s an attractive playfulness to his work if one manages to get onto his admittedly rarefied wavelength.
The actors, though not called upon to deliver weighty performances, have to be brave enough to expose themselves to Greenaway’s acidic eye. As usual with the director, full frontal nude scenes, both male and female, abound, yet there’s nothing in the way of real passion in this very academic exercise.
Non-Greenaway fans won’t be convinced by this latest epic, so that future episodes, Part 2 planned for winter 2003 and Part 3 for spring 2004, will be anticipated with mixed feelings. Actors announced for these coming Luper adventures include such weighty names as Miranda Richardson, Ornella Muti, Isabella Rossellini and Franka Potente.
“The Tulse Luper Suitcases” is handsomely produced, with stylized but impressive production design and much use of computer-generated inserts and overlays. The Michael Nyman-like music score by Borut Krzisnik is a major asset.