Death in the Seine (1988)
Directed by Peter Greenaway

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Synopsis & Analysis
In Death in the Seine, Peter Greenaway presents the viewer with a catalogue of twenty-three of the three-hundred and six persons who died in a particular stretch of that river between 1795 and 1801.

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Instead of providing his work with a narrative structure like that of most films, Greenaway organizes it as a sort of list, dividing Death in the Seine into twenty-five sections, one for each cadaver, a prologue, and an epilogue. Each of the divisions focusing on a body commences by giving the name of the dead person and the date, according to both the Gregorian and Revolutionary calendars, on which that corpse was found. Once such information has been conveyed, the director proceeds to relate a brief history of the discovery, examination, and identification of the deceased. All these details are told to the viewer by an unseen narrator, and none of the characters who appear in the film's different parts speak at any point.

While this information is being communicated, the director unveils various images. At the beginning of every one of the movie's sections, he exhibits the corpse with which it is concerned by allowing his camera to pan across the body from its toes to its head. Having so revealed the cadaver, Greenaway goes on to mingle depictions of Bouille (Jean-Michel Dagory) and Daude (Jim van der Woude), the two morgue attendants who were responsible for it, washing, inspecting, and arranging their charge with brief sequences showing either the activities of each of the persons who has died shortly before he met his end or the events occurring at the time that individual's body was found.

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All of these happenings are shot in black and white, although the images thereby produced are frequently tinted with sedate sepias or some other washed out hue. The effect the director so achieves is often surprisingly attractive, as well as oddly comical, as it exposes both the native beauty of the human form and of human artifacts as well the ridiculousness of these. Fortunately, this absurdity, somehow, actually adds to the appeal of the objects being displayed. Then, having created these lovely images, Greenaway superimposes writing, geometric figures, and the like on top of them, suffusing the whole of his film with a captivating artificiality.

What is more, the movie is pervaded with a definite and consistently alluring sense of humor. In addition to numerous sly asides and casual cynicisms, this darkly comic quality is brought out by Greenaway's almost slapstick presentations of the activities of Bouille and Daude. This pair are often shown as though they were exaggerated characters in a silent comedy. These depictions are, at once, funny and, by their contrast with the movie's grim subject, vaguely unsettling.

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Because it is enlivened by its visual loveliness and its comic touches, the film's repetitious structure, its relations the histories of each of its twenty-three corpses, never grows tedious. The moviegoer, fascinated by such elements, is repeatedly reminded of the wonderful pointlessness, the boundless absurdity of human existence, as well as of the beauty and charm of that ludicrousness.

Although it is hardly Greenaway's best film, Death in the Seine is a peculiar, mesmerizing work that is sure move the viewer.

Review by Keith Allen

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