“A Life in Suitcases” is being billed as an edited theatrical release version of writer-director Peter Greenaway’s three-part HD Tulse Luper opus. Scenes also have been added and much has been taken away. Still, only those intimately familiar with the trilogy as a whole will be able to follow the labyrinthine paths made even more mystifying due to the wholesale editing of the six hours-plus trilogy into a normal feature length. These “Suitcases,” therefore, will be lucky to get unpacked at festivals let alone arthouse theaters.
Greenaway’s personal narrative style has frequently been accused of being incomprehensible. However, the Luper trilogy, with its baroque asides and multi-layered texts and images, isn’t actually difficult to follow.
The basic premise — Tulse Luper (played at different ages by JJ Feild, Stephen Billington and Roger Rees) being swept into the ill-fortuned tides of the 20th century and forced to spend his life in a succession of imprisonments — can easily be understood as a parable of fascism’s suppression of the individual.
So, too, the suitcases, all 92 of them, are handy encapsulations of a life which, in its wanderings, parallels the increasingly mobile modern condition.
The problem with this new version is that it never shakes the feeling that it is a condensation, destroying any real understanding of Luper’s character and obsessions. Those unfamiliar with the story have little to guide them through the currents that wash Luper on shore in places ranging from Utah to the Soviet gulags.
The humor, especially apparent in the first two installments, has mostly been chucked overboard.
The greatest number of added scenes fit into the ending of the original Part I. Players whose function was only hinted at in the trilogy are given more heft: Luper’s relationship with Cissie Colpitts (Valentina Cervi) is expanded, and the fate of Luper’s double Floris Creps (also played by Feild) is revealed, making sense of the character’s inclusion in the story.
Similarly, scenes at Vaux-le-Vicomte (where Part II begins) are expanded, and Greenaway’s homage to Pasolini’s “Salo” is made more apparent.
The additions, however, forced much more to be hacked off. For a series that’s meant to be expansive (with Web sites, books and exhibitions), Greenaway’s decision to shrink its core makes little sense.
In what was the original Part III, signs of the helmer’s evident boredom are even more apparent than in the trilogy, with animated outlines casually superimposed on images as if he’s mindlessly doodling on a text he knows too well.
Greenaway said he conceived of the Luper project as something to be casually dipped into. But, for all its moments of mesmerizing beauty, this new version presents images with no engagement which leads to inevitable tedium.
Looking for a return to the Greenaway of old is pointless, but looking forward to a Greenaway whose considered engagement with his cinematic projects makes artistic sense shouldn’t be too much to ask.