One of Peter Greenaway's least-seen features in the US, THE BABY OF MACON is also one of his best. Made in 1993, this historical drama about the exploitation of a child in 16th-century France has had limited distribution in America due to its controversial nature. Sadly, the boldly
audacious, reflexive film is one that audiences who use entertainment as an escape should be required to see.
A play is performed in 1657 for a Northern Italian theater audience, which includes the young Prince Cosimo de Medici III (Jonathan Lacey). The tale told on stage begins 100 years earlier in the famine-racked countryside of Macon, France, where a middle-aged woman (Diana van Kolck) gives birth to
a baby boy. This event stirs up the prejudices of the entire community, particularly the many barren women, who seek to punish the woman for bearing an infant beyond her years. The woman's grown daughter (Julia Ormond) uses the situation to her own ends, hiding her mother from the world and
claiming that the baby is hers, product of a virgin birth. The peasants come to see the child (Nils Dorando) as a miracle and offer goods to the family in return for his blessings. The Church grows jealous of the attention paid to the child, and the bishop's son (Ralph Fiennes), a believer in new
sciences, remains skeptical of the "mother," who now calls herself Mary. He accepts Mary's challenge to test her virginity by making love to her in a barnyard. As they begin having sex, however, the child uses apparently real powers to force a cow to gore the bishop's son to death. (Later, it
becomes clear that the actor playing the son has actually been killed by the cow.) In revenge, the bishop (Philip Stone) declares Mary an unfit mother and takes the boy away.
When Mary discovers that the Church is selling the child's bodily fluids, she murders him in revenge. Condemned to death, Mary argues that a virgin cannot be executed. Prince Cosimo, emerging from the audience, suggests a solution to the dramatic dilemma: the Church arranges for Mary to be
"deflowered" by 343 soldiers. As the scene begins, the actress playing the part of Mary learns that the other actors plan to rape her onstage as revenge for her arrogance in pursuing the lead role. Mary (as well as the actress playing her) dies from the ghastly ordeal. The dead child is declared a
saint, his body dismembered, and the pieces given out as souvenirs. Unaware of the real deaths they have viewed, the audience applauds the morally righteous ending.
THE BABY OF MACON is a searing and brilliant work of art, perhaps one of the most profound films to emerge in the 1990s. Peter Greenaway blends a formally rigorous aesthetic with provocative subject matter in a way that makes his previously controversial THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER
(1989), appear as a more playful filmic tapestry. The marriage of horrific themes with beautiful images (superb widescreen cinematography by Sacha Vierny, sumptuous production design by Ben van Os and Jan Roelfs, and exquisite costumes by Dien van Straalen) and sonorous period music could even be
seen as Greenaway's answer to the disdainful critics of COOK.
The extra intensity of THE BABY OF MACON comes primarily from the complex play-within-a-play structure that implicates the viewer in the theatrical acts of barbarism. Greenaway's main formal trick is to literally "break down" the walls of the theater and allow the real and artificial to become one
and the same (Vierny's gracefully panning camera continually connects actor to audience member). In the climactic rape scene, which reveals nothing explicit, Greenaway condemns the traditionally sensational dramatizations of rape by shielding the play--but not the film--audience from the knowledge
that a real rape is occurring. Thus, Greenaway shrewdly denounces violence-as-entertainment without exploiting it himself.
It may seem odd to call Greenaway's work feminist, given its brutality towards women, but THE BABY OF MACON, like other Greenaway films, packs more power (and haunts the memory longer) than more gently progressive efforts. Despite the disturbing nature of this unfairly neglected film (or, rather,
because of it), viewers are urged to seek it out. (Graphic violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: One of Peter Greenaway's least-seen features in the US, THE BABY OF MACON is also one of his best. Made in 1993, this historical drama about the exploitation of a child in 16th-century France has had limited distribution in America due to its controversial… (more)