Take your favourite Wes Anderson film and imagine it merged with a lesser-known Jean-Luc Godard picture and Ealing Studios’ Kind Hearts and Coronets and you’re close to understanding what British director Peter Greenaway is all about. Drowning by Numbers (1988) was played as part of a Greenaway series at the Biografilm Film Festival in Bologna this year and filled up a room – a long, strange, and colourful viewing experience punctuated by uncomfortable or uncertain laughter, and appreciative mutterings. The story told is both simple and complex. It opens with a death; a wife murders her husband for adultery, which leads to a long line of dark and hilarious events that involves three generations in a family — grandmother to granddaughter — played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson, who have two important things in common: their name — Cissy — and a penchant for killing men in the water.
Their reasons are not what you would expect. When really probed, the grandmother responds that adultery may not have been her real motive. “I killed him because he’d stopped washing his feet” she says, and the viewers shudder, “I killed him because he had a hairy backside, because I didn’t like him” but the statement is not wholly misunderstood. It is often the smaller things that tip us over the edge, when they accumulate, and her husband’s most recent affair was only the straw the broke the camel’s back, so to speak. Each time a murder takes place, they get away with it because they are chummy with a coroner who, as you could have guessed, agrees to use his imagination when it comes to determining the cause of death.
Read at Unsung Films: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Drowning by Numbers is a dark and exciting mix of Wes Anderson for its colours and its quirks, French “Nouvelle Vague” for its irony and absurdity and Ealing Studios for its black humour and satirical edge. The film is filled with a sense of casualness in dealing with matters like murder and suicide and never do the lives of the protagonists’ victims matter more than a sarcastic remark or a very English “Oh my”. Greenaway injects the film with trivial moments that shock and delight in between acts of shocking cruelty. Examples of the playing of games are described in great detail and with great passion, and sometimes demonstrated, by the coroner’s son Smut, one of the film’s great characters. There are scenes that involve a conversation about marriage on top of a pile of dead cows in the middle of the road, or a little girl skipping on the pavement in the middle of the night and dedicating each skip to a different star.
The film is a portrait of three women very much in control yet frustrated. Empowered, yet humiliated. While the murders start out understandable (the oldest Cissy’s husband more or less invites her to do it) they end up totally irrational. Each murder takes place in the water, hence the title, but in different contexts – a bath, then the sea, then a swimming-pool. But as the absurdity continues to grow, still the viewing endures, and so does a certain charm permeate the story. Drowning by Numbers should be considered a master-work of British cinema for its rich layering of brilliant performances, black humour, and surreality.
Watch the trailer for Drowning by Numbers here:
Drowning By Numbers at IMDb
Drowning By Numbers at Wikipedia
Drowning By Numbers (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb