After portraying Rembrandt in “Nightwatching,” scribe-helmer Peter Greenaway continues his exploration of Dutch masters to vivid and theatrical effect in “Goltzius and the Pelican Company.” The Lowlands-based auteur here stages the visit of Baroque-era print master Hendrick Goltzius to a margrave’s court, where the engraver’s troupe re-enacts six erotically charged biblical sins in carnal tableaux vivants. The English-language pic is recognizably Greenaway-esque, as anachronistic as it is flamboyant, and with more wriggling naked body parts than a Bosch painting. Sprocket operas and highbrow temples of culture will want a print, but prospects on wider commercial canvases are minimal.
Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr, speaking English with a fat Dutch accent) has come to the palace of the margrave of Alsace (F. Murray Abraham) in Colmar (now in France) to ask for money for a printing press, so he can publish a collection of biblical tales illustrated with engravings. In exchange for the patronage, the margrave’s court will be offered six nights of divertissements staged by Goltzius’ Pelican Company, with the re-enacted stories, mostly from the Old Testament, putting on display such lascivious yet entertaining subjects as incest, necrophilia and adultery.
The film’s prologue establishes its anachronistic location — a huge, empty industrial warehouse decorated with different showy props for each night — and the story’s central conceit. After each performance, the court, which includes noblemen and religious figures of various denominations, are allowed to react to what they have just witnessed.
The Pelican Company thus works its way through the stories of Adam and “Eva” (Dutch for Eve), about the discovery of carnal sin; Lot and his daughters (incest); David and Bathsheba (adultery); Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (seduction of the innocent); Samson and Delilah (prostitution); and the New Testament tale of John the Baptist and Salome, with its particularly gruesome ending.
Each mini-production contains some shocking element that furthers the discussion among courtiers, such as the troupe’s depiction of Adam and Eva making love doggy-style (“what’s dog but God backwards?” is the sly excuse). It also allows Greenaway to cleverly comment on the rather explicit sexual nature of his own work; it’s noted that artists and especially audiences love erotic morality tales, allowing them to portray or look without shame, in the name of education, at what is considered sinful.
Ben Zuydwijk’s production design is breathtaking in its inventiveness and juxtaposition of different influences, such as a scene in which the company’s playwright, Boethius (Giulio Berruti), is locked in a cage suspended above water; the various set elements suggest an Ikea shopping spree by way of Giambattista Piranesi.
Bluescreen is extensively used for interludes in which Goltzius comments on the action, and Greenaway’s trademark floating texts are also present here. Shots of famous paintings depicting the various tales are also inserted throughout. As befits the setting, the acting is theatrically over the top, with much of the dialogue scatological, rude or sexual.