Drowning by Numbers (1988)
Directed by Peter Greenaway

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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One after another, three women, all named Cissie Colpitts, drown their husbands. They then use their friendship with the local coroner to conceal their crimes, which becomes increasingly difficult as the men's relatives begin to make inquiries.

Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers is a marvellous, complex, and clever work of art. Combining accomplished acting, remarkable visual beauty, and a playful, fascinating narrative filled with depictions of sex and death, the film is always a delight to watch. Although the director has produced better, it is still an impressive achievement.


Bathed in lovely golden hues and vibrant colors, filled with beautifully arrayed objects and scintillating waters, and conveying an appreciation both of nature and the human body in all its forms, Drowning by Numbers is a visually stunning movie. The viewer is quickly intoxicated by the gorgeous spectacle with which he is being presented and remains transfixed by the film's consistent loveliness throughout its duration.


The movie's virtues are not, however, exhausted by its visual qualities. In fact, Drowning by Numbers includes several of the rich and captivating themes that recur in many of the director's works. Numbers and lists, for instance, structure the whole of the narrative. Even the progress of the film itself is charted with the successive appearance of various items displaying the numbers one to one-hundred. This conceit works well throughout and gives the movie a sense of inevitability and ritual. Events appear to move along regular courses determined by set rules. It also adds a delicious playfulness to the actions depicted, imbuing them with something of the feel of a game, which keeps them always somewhat lighthearted and separates them from those of the ordinary world.


The production of such feelings is further aided by the director's presentations of some of the particular interests of his characters, which so govern those characters' outlooks that they come to structure the film itself. This is especially true of the preoccupations of the coroner and his son. Both are shown as being enthralled with complex games, and they, and the movie's other characters, spend a substantial amount of time playing the games the two of them have devised. In a number of scenes scattered throughout the film, for example, Greenaway reveals how the coroner's son combines his interest in games with a fascination with death in a game in which he searches for dead animals and marks the spot where a given being died with a daub of paint, the color of which is determined by the day on which he found the animal's corpse. Not only are such games played earnestly throughout, as are, for that matter, the very deadly games of the three women at the center of the film's narrative, but the intricate rules of these games also come to order much of the movie's narrative and contribute to its ritualistic feel.


The presence of such elements differentiates the actions of the film from those of daily life and gives them a distinctive liminality. Rituals prescribe particular behaviors which must be followed if a person is to gain the reward a given rite promises, but there is no innate connection between the actions of the ritual and the goal achieved. The same is true of games. A particular throw of a pair of dice has no innate connection with gaining money, but, because the rules of the game dictate a connection and the players accept that connection, there is in the game a causal link between these elements. The world of games and rituals functions by its own rules, which are different from those of ordinary experience. Greenaway, by structuring the narrative of Drowning by Numbers with rules distinct from those governing the connections of necessity experienced in everyday life, lifts the events depicted in the film above those of ordinary experience so that they are both universalized and infused with a liminal quality. The director is, consequently, able to delight the viewer with the beauties and sorrows present in the film itself so that his pleasure is focused on the movie's loveliness and is not pragmatically concerned with any extrinsic object.


Finally, I should note that the acting in Drowning by Numbers is consistently good. Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson are all excellent as the three Cissie Colpitts. They bring a vivacity and love of life to their characters, but they also make manifest the sufferings and hardships the women have endured. They allow the viewer to sympathize with the women and, simultaneously, to feel horror at the crimes they commit. Bernard Hill's portrayal of the coroner is also a delight. He creates a charming, weak willed character of wonderful playfulness who is as likeable as are any of the women, and just as tragic.


Although it is not the director's best film, Drowning by Numbers is a beautiful, evocative work of art.

Review by Keith Allen

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