Art cinema from writer and director Peter Greenaway who is continuing his fascination with the life and works of Dutch artists. Although Rembrandt was the subject of Nightwatching (2007), the first of his Dutch Masters series (a film about Hieronymus Bosch is due to be produced for a 2016 release) Greenaway has referenced artists such as Vermeer in earlier works such as Drowning By Numbers(1988). The painter and illustrator Hendrik Goltzius is the main subject of this film, a man who enjoyed some success during his lifetime due to his erotic engravings and prints. The film explores how he and his group managed to publish their works and the depths they needed to go to realise their aims and start their business. So intellectual concerns about art coupled with religion, sex, business and occasionally violent politics form the basis of Goltzius and the Pelican Company.
In the late 16th century with the publishing industry still in its infancy, the newly formed and enthusiastic Pelican Company are in need of a printing press, which they believe will eventually prove its worth when they sell a multitude of publications, whether they be plays, texts or illustrations. Founder Hendrik Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr) is attempting to appeal to a popular agenda as well as the aristocracy. But the group are desperately seeking sizeable financing to realise their projects, which is why they require a huge cash outlay from The Margrave (F. Murray Abraham) in Rome, whose immense wealth sees him living a sense of regal imperialism in his massive abode, filled with a multitude of servants who abide to his every whim, no matter how bizarre or extreme. The Pelican Company try to appease The Margrave’s fantastical, fetishist, virtually heretical desires in order to obtain the funding. Before they receive any investment they agree to write and perform a series of six dramatised plays to be written by Thomas Boethius (Giulio Berruti). The theme that links these plays is the taboo and, to create the required narratives for the explicit performances, familiar biblical narratives are used, resplendent in vice, uncertainty or just plain depravity.
Greenaway was one of the earliest film-makers to make extensive use of computer compositing in his productions and Goltzius and the Pelican Company is no exception. The irony that much of his work has thematic elements from around the time of the Dutch masters or the Jacobean era (such works as The Baby of Macon ) may initially appear incongruous, but this use is intrinsically artistic and about as far from the Hollywood super-hero special effects as you are likely to see. Here the 3-D (at times appearing fully illustrated or sometimes covered in swiftly blown snow) elements are coupled with the narrative revelations that are composited and often animated over images of our narrator as he tells his tale in a manner that is, at times, reminiscent of the titular character’s illustrations. Sometimes written text is depicted in front of or behind the character as he speaks, embellishing the words of the person delivering the dialogue. This is a lavish production which makes full use of its cinematography, employing such techniques as fish-eye lens photography which distorts and enhances the situation on show, or the sumptuous set design which comprises revolving stages, a swinging torture cage and beds floating in water; the deliberately confined stage environment helps enhance the visual flair. The Music, also visualised, helps set a classic tone to the overall style.
Intellectual in structure and delivery, artistic in theme and composition, controversial in the events it depicts, in many ways Goltzius and the Pelican Company truly demonstrates how twenty first century art can expound sixteenth century dramatization. Brilliant but, like some of its titular characters’ work, not for those who are of a disposition that is easily offended.