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The year 1642 marks the turning point in the life of the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt, turning him from a wealthy respected celebrity into a discredited pauper. At the insistence of his pregnant wife Saskia, Rembrandt has reluctantly agreed to paint the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia in a group portrait that will later become to be known as The Nightwatch. He soon discovers that there is a conspiracy afoot with the Amsterdam merchants playing at soldiers maneuvering for financial advantage and personal power in, that time, the richest city in the Western World. Rembrandt stumbles on a foul murder. Confident in the birth of a longed-for son and heir, Rembrandt is determined to expose the conspiring murderers and builds his accusation meticulously in the form of the commissioned painting, uncovering the seamy and hypocritical side to Dutch Society in the Golden Age. Rembrandt's great good fortune turns. Saskia dies. Rembrandt reveals the accusation of murder in the painting and the ... Written by
Briefly, the plot of Nightwatching is about Rembrandt's uncovering of a conspiracy during his painting of his most famous work the Night Watch. Just as importantly it's about the three loves of his life.
I've tried to review this film in the context of Peter Greenaway's directing career as it's pretty critical to my appreciation. As much an artwork as any film itself, with a director who has had a long career, is how all the artworks come together as a ghost of their creator. The power of women over men is something that Greenaway has always reflected on in his films, and in that context Nightwatching represents a mellowing of his gaze. Always fascinated by women destroying men or cuckolding them in some way, Greenaway has made a film where the central character of the painter Rembrandt lives amongst women, and whilst often bewildering to him, they are companions. There are remnants of the past style at the beginning of the movie where during a family meal all the women in the room chant together, "Contemporary women are permitted to smoke, write, correspond with Descartes, wear spectacles, insult the Pope, and breast-feed babies.". The result here is charming as opposed to alarming. A far cry from "Deadman's Catch" in Drowning By Numbers (1988), a catching game where players are successively handicapped for missing catches, and finally wrapped in a winding sheet (traditionally used for corpses) when they lose. The women escape unscathed, perfect catchers, people that exist in some sort of harmony with life, who can find a place and a rhythm. In Nightwatching women still have that rhythm but they don't end up murdering their husbands! On the other hand Rembrandt does have to defend Hendrikje Stoffels from the advances of the callow and the licentious, and women, though with this rhythm are victims of men rather than succubi.
Another echo is a reference to cuckoldry, when Rembrandt discourses on how Potiphar was a cuckold who, "...slept with young men in order to avoid the temptation of his wife trying to screw Joseph". Apparently the Jewish tradition relating to Potiphar related in the Talmud, is that Potiphar bought Joseph as a catamite. Rembrandt learnt this from a rabbi friend of his, an interesting fact in a very well researched movie.
I've seen many Rembrandt drawings and paintings in museums, but I never knew that he had actually produced a small number of erotic works, which is something that Greenaway draws out in his extremely ribald Rembrandt. A fierce critic of Rembrandt, Andries Pel, who despised Rembrandt's realism, in 1681 wrote of his females nudes, "...the traces of the lacings of the corsets on the stomach, of the garters on the legs must be visible if nature was to get her due.". Rembrandt's fascination with this sort of thing is again picked up on by Greenaway.
When I went to the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam and stood in front of the Night Watch, I very much felt that the men in the painting were poseurs and dandies and that I had no interest in the painting because of this. That though was precisely Rembrandt's point, and Greenaway really helped to bring the painting and much of his other work alive. Something that Greenaway has said about this film is that Amsterdam for a time in the 1640s was a place of unregulated wealth gathering by a handful of civil dynasties, similar to modern Russia.
I felt that in line with what I'm saying about mellowing and maturity, the choice of composer Giovanni Solamar, who is far less famous than frequent collaborator Michael Nyman, follows along the same trajectory, the music is far less flashy, but somehow full of confusion and elegiac tones, more consistent with a film from an older and wiser filmmaker.
I felt that I could connect with Rembrandt's grief at the death of his wife Saskia, and that there was something quite special about that. Despite the fact that Greenaway manages to build scarce suspense around the uncovering of the treachery that Rembrandt seeks to expose, I think it's a film that I will remember forever, with several, to my mind, iconic scenes. I think it helped immensely in my taking in of the film that Martin Freeman looks so much like Rembrandt, especially with the care and attention the hairdressers heaped upon him, something that's quite critical when you have a man so famous for self-portraiture.
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