Rembrandt's J'Accuse

  • 2009
  • Movie
  • Documentary

Peter Greenaway's Rembrandt's J'Accuse is a more expansive treatment of the subject he raised in his 2007 film Nightwatching: the notion, which he supports with a detailed analysis of the 34 figures represented in the painting, that Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" is a not-so-veiled allegorical reference to murder and a surrounding conspiracy -- and that it...read more

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Reviewed by Bruce Eder
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Peter Greenaway's Rembrandt's J'Accuse is a more expansive treatment of the subject he raised in his 2007 film Nightwatching: the notion, which he supports with a detailed analysis of the 34 figures represented in the painting, that Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" is a not-so-veiled allegorical reference to murder and a surrounding conspiracy -- and that it was this aspect of the work that resulted in the downturn of the artist's fortunes from that point forward in his career. With his historical/forensic approach to visual analysis, coupled with the use of various levels of camera trickery, Greenaway carries us into the world of the 17th century Netherlands and attempts to deduce the motives of the personalities involved, not least the painter himself (portrayed in reenactment sequences by Martin Freeman). Greenaway ranges freely across art and culture, all laced with a freewheeling eye that -- not surprisingly, given his track record in this area -- seldom misses a scatological point where one is to be made. In a way, the latter is sort of a shame, as his real purpose seems to be to change the way that most of us see, and especially the way we look at art. Such an exercise would probably be especially useful for less-jaded younger audience members, but it's questionable in many communities of the U.S. if the parents of viewers under 17 would encourage them to see a documentary, however well-intended, that delves into sexuality in the manner of this film. One also gets the feeling of being provoked by some of this material, which, at times, seems a bit over the top. Nonetheless, the visuals and the range of the discussion overcome these questions, especially when they reach extreme points, as they can -- Greenaway, as those who have seen his past films can readily attest, has made something of a career by pushing the envelope of what used to be called "polite conversation," and he doesn't disappoint here.

As for the main thrust of the film, it’s a marvel of analysis, and not dry or without wit. In a CSI-style narrative about suspects and participants in what seems to be a murder, when Greenaway gets to the point of focusing on the dog in the picture, there is no doubt that there’s a sense of humor at work. Indeed, at moments Greenaway seems bent on resurrecting Alfred Hitchcock's mixing of dark humor and menace. And as Greenaway is a presence throughout the movie -- just as Rembrandt himself was, evidently, a presence in his own work -- the Hitchcockian moments abound at several levels. One does get the feeling, however, that this is more of a veiled intellectual exercise than a documentary meant to redefine its subject. One comes away from Greenaway's movie with the sense that some sort of psychic surgery has been performed -- or attempted -- on the mind's eye of the viewer. He starts off with a critique of the lack of visual education that most of us receive, and it seems as though this is where he ends. One isn't sure what to make of some aspects of his analysis (Freud, after all, did say that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar) or the total thrust of his work, but his underlying premise is more than compelling enough to make this film worthwhile.

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  • Released: 2009
  • Review: Peter Greenaway's Rembrandt's J'Accuse is a more expansive treatment of the subject he raised in his 2007 film Nightwatching: the notion, which he supports with a detailed analysis of the 34 figures represented in the painting, that Rembrandt's "The Night… (more)

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