This review was updated on Oct. 12
Peter Greenaway conceived of the Tulse Luper Suitcases as a multimedia extravaganza, with cinematic sections merely pieces in the overall scheme. “The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part III: From Sark to Finish,” perhaps the weakest of the series, completes the film, or rather HD portion, but the books, the exhibitions and the Web sites, not to mention the promised DVDs, are ongoing. Don’t expect a Luper figurine in your Happy Meal — even more than usual, the Suitcases project is geared to aficionados familiar with Greenaway’s playful, baroque sensibility. This isn’t the pic to convert the masses to the Greenaway aesthetic.
The character of Tulse Luper first appears in “Vertical Features Remake,” and running through the Suitcases trilogy are constant references to earlier Greenaway films. Luper, with his love of classification and passion for collecting, is an alter ego of the director as much as an Everyman participating in, as well as tossed around by, the angry currents of the 20th century.
The two earlier parts brought him from Wales to Utah, where his search for lost Mormon cities led him to the first of a lifetime of imprisonments. He then appears in Belgium and France, always under Fascist lock and key. In “From Sark to Finish,” Luper washes up on the island of Sark (pointedly compared with Prospero’s isle in “The Tempest”), and then suffers a series of imprisonments in Barcelona, Italy, Budapest and the gulags of the Soviet Union. While the earlier segments content themselves with covering periods of 10 or so years, Part III tackles five decades of history, and feels unsatisfactorily rushed in its attempt to cram too much into the mix.
Throughout his travels, Luper (played by three different actors) collects objects and stores them in suitcases. Ninety-two suitcases form the tangible remains of his life (he’d be 92 if he were alive in 2004) and are representative of the world itself. Ninety-two is also the atomic number of uranium, which Luper is accused of trying to pilfer. More information about each suitcase appears on the Web site, and detailed descriptions of periods only skimmed over in the films are elaborated in lavishly illustrated books.
Greenaway frequently proclaims his dissatisfaction with traditional cinematic narrative, so plot summaries do little to explain his vision. He is, however, a lover of stories, and the “Suitcases” trilogy is nothing if not a compendium of elaborately constructed tales, most literally expressed in Luper’s Sheherazade-like role for his Soviet jailer’s wife. Like Alice jumping down a hole after the White Rabbit, these meandering asides, further explored in other media, take the viewer along Greenaway’s mesmerizing, frequently delightful web of associations and fantasies.
Greenaway has long championed new digital technology, first noticeably embraced in 1989’s “A TV Dante,” and then dazzlingly used in “Prospero’s Books” and “The Pillow Book.” Throughout these films, he maintained his painter’s eye for crisp, richly textured images, never straying far from his beloved Dutch, Flemish and Italian Old Masters.
Unfortunately, his diving headlong into new tech advances has now robbed the images of the glowing warmth characteristic of his earlier works, and while he maintains a sensitivity to rich colors, they’re now wedded to a cold sharpness, robbing Tulse Luper of that magical lifeblood learned from Vermeer and Titian. If, as Greenaway hails, HD will supplant film, the conquest will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.