The Baby of
The narrative of The Baby of Mâcon interweaves and gives equal weight to a number of different layers, that of the movie itself, that of the play being shown in the movie, and that depicting the play's audience, so that the viewer is never left unaware that he is watching a film. If most directors attempt to make a given movie into a transparent window through which the viewer can observe the doings of the characters, Greenaway, by taking the approach he does, here creates something more akin to a stained glass window, at rather than through which one gazes. The events of the play being performed before Cosimo de Medici are often as real, in the context of the film, as are the events occurring to the members of the audience. Both the events of the play and the actions of the spectators, however, remain merely occurrences within a work of art, the movie itself, from which they are never divorced as though they had some independent existence. The viewer, consequently, is able to engage immediately with the film with which he is being presented rather than with persons whose spurious extrinsic existence the movie seems to be indicating. The emotional reaction Greenaway elicits is not, therefore, made unstable and unsatisfying by its referring to beings the viewer is meant to take as having some sort of real existence, even though they do not. Instead, the moviegoer is able to immerse himself in the lovely but fearsome world that exists directly before him on the screen and lose himself in the dire events there being portrayed.
What is more, the film is so consistently lovely and so wonderfully stylized that, like a person gazing at the painting of a master, the viewer ceases to be concerned with anything but the work of art in front of him. In fact, the movie's sumptuous settings, gorgeous costumes, and rich details, as well as Sacha Vierny's beautiful cinematography, all help to make The Baby of Mâcon more reminiscent of various works from one or another genre of Seventeenth Century European painting than of most other movies. Such visual qualities, and the film's stylization, in its use of ritualistic dialogue, deliberate actions, and elaborate staging, assist in evoking a liminal reality of remarkable beauty distinct from that of ordinary experience. Actions are choreographed as though they were dances. The baby himself is made to speak through the sung words of a visible actor. Locations have a fluidity more like that of dream than waking reality, and the viewer, thanks to the presence of such elements, is allowed to participate in a rarefied, beautiful world of terrible cruelty.
By abstracting his vision, Greenaway prevents the viewer from directing the horror and revulsion the movie elicits towards any particular object and is consequently able to universalize those emotions so that the viewer experiences horror and revulsion as such, as divorced from practical considerations. The grisly mutilation and selling of the baby's corpse and the interminable rape of his sister by hundreds of soldiers are, for example, made even more terrible than they would have been had those events been depicted realistically.
The Baby of Mâcon is absolutely gorgeous, but, evoking horror and revulsion as it does, it is not an easy film to watch. I personally felt fatigued by the experience, though this emotional exhaustion contributed to rather than detracted from the film's quality.
Review by Keith Allen
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