Directed by Peter Greenaway
After years of hermetic, densely allusive work, Peter Greenaway endeavors in his latest film to explain and persuade. An engrossing art lecture, Rembrandt's J'Accuse is an illustrated analysis of the militia painting The Night Watch as a coded accusation of murder among Dutch gentry and a satire in both form and content. Aside from Greenaway's airs, it's essentially an unusually elaborate scholastic aid, with explanatory period-dress interludes (starring Martin Freeman of The Office UK as you-know-who) and magisterial narration.
This idiosyncratic 31-step explication of who-shot-who in this group portrait fleshes out the 17th-century context, covering Amsterdam backroom jostling, new candle technology and the peccadilloes of the provincial upstart behind it all. Greenaway seems at ease holding forth as teacher (and mock judge); always a painter at heart, he has been all too eagerly dismissed by film critics unmoved by art history and put off by his pronouncements (e.g., here, on our deeply "impoverished cinema" thanks to rampant visual illiteracy).
Mid-career Greenaway crops up in the opening digitally manipulated track past the Rijksmuseum, circled by Eurocop cars and underlined by a text scroll of "witnesses" (i.e., viewers from Mahler to Mandela). But after that, it's a didactic (in a good sense) trip through the chaotic painting's nooks and crannies (anomalous girl in white, hidden shooter, cropped left panel), part detective work, part assertion (and part complement to Greenaway's more dramatized take Nightwatching). Rembrandt's rejected commission may have tanked his career, but it could herald a new phase in Greenaway's as a docu-prof.
Opens October 21 at Film Forum