|By Joshua Zyber
October 6, 1999
Peter Greenaway is certainly no stranger to controversy. Yet even among his film works, The Baby of Mâcon may be his most controversial and misunderstood project to date. The picture opened to scathing critical reaction in Europe, and even Greenaway has made some conciliatory apologies for it. Coming from the creator of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover these are not words to be taken lightly.
The film was produced in the period between Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book, but the visual design is most similar to that of Cook. There are no picture-in-picture montages this time around. The narrative takes place on several levels, the outermost being a vaguely Renaissance period. Within this is the staging of a play, and the story traverses the various levels of reality in a deft manner. The play is a parable about a messianic child born into a barren country, and the greed and religious fervor that surround him. Julia Ormond portrays the child’s caretaker who later assumes the role of his mother to further her own position. Ralph Fiennes is a member of the clergy who questions her motives. They are attractive performers and they both appear completely nude in the picture, so were it not for the controversial parts you could almost say that the movie has a little something for everyone.
To provide a synopsis of the film’s climax would seem crass and would do the film a grave injustice. Put simply, the story comes to a shocking conclusion that is both horrifying and levels a firm accusation against the voyeuristic role of the “watcher” in the audience of any artwork, including the film itself.
The movie was not a popular success.
Regardless, the film is a bold stroke in Greenaway’s career, and in many ways confirms his position as one of the great masters of cinema. The cinematography and production design are often breathtaking, and the execution of the narrative simply staggering. I generally find Julia Ormond to be a bland actress, but here she gives a searing tear-down-the-walls performance that elevates her greatly in my opinion.
My wife, on the other hand, despises almost every aspect of the movie and was repulsed when she discovered that I had acquired it on home video. So please be warned about its polarizing nature before watching.
The film remains unreleased (some would say “unreleasable”) in the United States. Given its controversial subject matter and the general apathy toward Greenaway from the American public, it is highly unlikely that any distributor would choose to release the film in this country now that several years have passed. The most one can hope for is a home video release, but at this point no company has shown any interest in the title.
This is where the Japanese laserdisc market comes into play.
The Baby of Mâcon has been released on laserdisc in Japan. This may be the only official NTSC edition of the film available at present. The movie comes in a very attractive gatefold jacket. It runs just over two hours and is spread to three sides in CLV, followed by an interesting Japanese theatrical trailer. The side-breaks are well chosen, and in fact the platter break falls at a nearly ideal pause in the film’s action. However, this leaves barely 10 minutes of content on the final disc and the disc producers have chosen not to present any of the film in the CAV format. The disc also has no chapter-encoding, which can be a nuisance.
The picture is precisely letterboxed to the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and for some reason has been set high in the screen. The audio is strong and clear. It is not a showy sound mix, but after seeing the movie it is sometimes difficult to get the sound of the staffs drumming on the floor out of your head. The image transfer has a sharp focus and very few print-related artifacts other than one particularly worn out section of film. Unfortunately, the colors and contrasts are much lighter than they ought to be, leaving the whole print looking washed out. Pulling the brightness level down on your set helps to compensate a little for this problem, but doesn't fully solve it.
Even more distracting is the mandatory optical censorship imposed by Japanese regulations. There are strict laws in Japan regarding the presentation of genital nudity in films. Fortunately, there has been no editing done to the content of the picture. Unfortunately, any time an offending piece of pubic hair appears on screen it is covered up by a large oily smear. I was expecting a discreetly placed blur-spot, much as appears on American television, but instead the censorship is done crudely and haphazardly. The smearing tends to block out large portions of the frame, and more often than not will miss the dirty bits altogether. Luckily, Mâcon does not have nearly the copious amount of nudity that is often found in other Greenaway pictures, but this is still a tremendous annoyance. I can hardly imagine what the Japanese edition of Prospero’s Books must look like.
The presentation is flawed mainly by the censorship but is otherwise satisfying. For the only available edition of a film unofficially banned from this country, it could be worse. I for one find this to be an important work from one of the most invigorating of living filmmakers, and am glad to have it at all. My wife may not agree.
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Disc jacket inner gatefold spread
Disc jacket back
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