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DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway
FEATURING: Julia Ormond, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey, Frank Egerton
PLOT: A passion-play performed in 17th-century Florence tells the story of a child born to a geriatric woman. The old woman’s daughter claims to be the child’s virgin mother and makes brisk business selling the “miraculous” infant’s blessings, while the local bishop’s son suspiciously observes her. Meanwhile, the local nobles in the audience interact with the onstage proceedings.
- The film was partially inspired by an uproar surrounding an advertising campaign that featured a newborn baby still attached to its umbilical cord. Greenaway was perplexed by the public’s reaction, and set out to create an unflinching depiction of the actual evils of murder and rape.
- The Catholic Church revoked permission for the film crew to shoot in the Cologne Cathedral after Greenaway’s previous film, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover, aired on German television two days before shooting was to begin.
- The Baby of Mâcon premiered at Cannes, but was seldom seen after that. Although it booked some dates in Europe, no North American distributor would agree to take on the film due to its subject matter. To this day it has still not been released on physical media in Region 1/A, although it finally became available for streaming in the 2020s.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is a perennial challenge to choose one image from a Greenaway picture; he regards film as a visual medium, not a tool to adapt literature. The shot of the bored young aristocrat, Cosimo de Medici, knocking over the two-hundred-and-eighth pin, signifying the end to the erstwhile virgin’s gang-rape, best merges Greenaway’s sense of mise-en-scène, his disgust for authority, and his undercurrent of odd humor.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Body secretion auction; death by gang-rape
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Fusing the most ornate costumes this side of the Baroque era with organized religion at its worst, The Baby of Mâcon is a lushly beautiful, sickening indictment of a fistful of humanity’s evils. Stylized stage performances integrate increasingly seamlessly with the side-chatter of (comparatively) modern viewers’ commentary who concurrently desire to take part in the make-believe. Greenaway moves his actors and their audience around each other with an expertise matched only by the growing moral horror developing onscreen.
Short clip from The Baby of Mâcon
COMMENTS: As the audience for The Baby of Mâcon, we bear witness to its iniquities. As witnesses, we bear responsibility: responsibility for the fraudulence of the baby’s aunt when she alleges she’s the child’s virgin mother; responsibility for the murder of the contemplative son of a bishop, gored by a bull at the mystical baby’s whim; responsibility for the bishop’s auction of the baby’s blood, sweat, and tears; and responsibility for the ghastly fate of the young “virgin mother” as the city militia take turns raping her two-hundred-and-eight times. We watch the play’s audience as they watch this execrable sentence enacted. In The Baby of Mâcon, Peter Greenaway blasts the church’s cruelty, nobility’s frivolity, and the spectators’ callousness. To say that his follow-up to his wrenching chef d’oeuvre The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover is one of cinema’s nastiest experiences would be no understatement. But its savagery is counterbalanced by its formalistic beauty, bold performances, and adroit cinematography.
A crowd of 17th-century bourgeois and nobles assemble in a theater for a performance of a nativity/passion play. Per contemporary tradition, the nobles—including a young De’ Medici (Jonathan Lacey)—sit upon the stage, to be observed alongside the performers by the audience. The play begins with the surprise birth of an infant, the first that the 15th-century French city of Mâcon had witnessed in some years. While the infant’s father bawdily pitches an elixir he claims is responsible for his potency, the mother wails, her head obscured by a sack. The infant’s older sister (Julia Ormond) claims the boy as her own child and begins the rumor that his was a virgin birth. A local bishop’s son (Ralph Fiennes) is skeptical, and ultimately suffers a divine punishment for his urge to lie with the baby’s “mother.” She then faces the wrath of the bishop for his son’s death, and through the interactions of the noblemen observers, the play evolves, with the De’ Medici concocting a thorough, and thoroughly appalling, punishment to be meted out on the virgin.
The opening shot of a nearly naked, mud-painted man who suffers from moderate spasms and a considerable stutter sets the ambience[?] His monologue is a cryptic advisement against fornication, and he is observed by a growing crowd of archetypes. Five minutes in, Greenaway has alienated all but a resilient few, and he continues in this vein. But having established his artifice, he proceeds to draw the viewer into the act. Shots of the in-film audience appear often, as do “backstage” sequences. Our omniscient view both crafts the film’s reality and forges our integral involvement. We may revel in this nod-and-a-wink coaxing from Greenaway, who knows there are few pleasures superior to secret observation and secret knowledge. But what we observe is unsettling, and our knowledge becomes burdensome.
There are three villains to be found in Greenaway’s outburst of arcane exhibitionism. First and foremost, there is the church: an institution the filmmaker has never made a secret of loathing. When it’s not fooling the peasantry with is placatious mumbo-jumbo, it’s actively ripping them off. Then there’s the nobility: those born into power without any earthly justification. A member of the De’ Medici clan has rarely appeared so idiotic or superfluous. As the third villain of the piece, the audience is in the unenviable position of complicity without agency, a lack of agency that allows for the worst in our co-conspirators. If ever there was a need for trigger warnings, it is the fate of the evil infant’s “mother.” After the death of the bishop’s son, the rules of this passion-play narrative require a harsh judgment. This judgment, though sanctioned by the bishop (the church’s obvious stand-in), is devised by the oafish De’ Medici. They cannot simply execute the “mother,” as the law prohibits execution of a virgin. The solution to this thorny legal dilemma? Rape. Two-hundred-and-eight times.
The clergy pre-forgives the militia for their efforts. De’ Medici is sickened at his mistake. Greenaway is furious, and we can merely sit and watch, knowing something that the theater audience does not: the actress playing the “mother” is “really” raped by the actors playing the militiamen. The Baby of Mâcon‘s framing devices begin as a barrier, but become a cage locking us in with Greenaway’s anger. This narrative trick is underhanded—and ingenious. And though he drenches his sets with gold and finery, wraps his messages in the trappings of high-minded poeticism, and smashes his fist in the face of his ideological enemies, Greenaway is one of the villains. He made this, after all: writing it, directing it, and burning through a mountain of artistic and critical goodwill he had accrued. Even in the finale there is no escape: the actors, nobles, and audience members rise and bow to the camera; all except the gored son of the bishop, and the violated “mother” of The Baby of Mâcon.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Visually sumptuous, and laden with religious refs and Brechtian devices, this elaborate but overlong film-of-a-play about the birth of a 17th-century miracle child and his short-lived period of grace plays like a tired rerun of the director’s previous extravaganzas… There’s an aridness, and a simple desire to shock, that recalls the later works of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Nonetheless, as a master of the ornate, Greenaway is still firing on all cylinders.”–Derek Elley, Variety (contemporaneous)
“Not even Ken Russell could have dreamed up the stew of grotesque religiosity, slavering voyeurism and sexual violence that is Peter Greenaway’s 1993 movie, The Baby of Mâcon…” –Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
The Baby of Mâcon by Peter Greenaway – This page at the personal site Greenaway shares with wife Saskia Boddeke is the closest thing this infamous and obscure film has to an official website; it includes brief summary and a comprehensive credit list.
IMDB LINK: The Baby of Mâcon (1993)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The Baby of Macon (1993): A Film that Will OFFEND Many – A video review by “Rabbit Hole Entrance”
LIST CANDIDATE: THE BABY OF MÂCON– This site’s original review of the film
HOME VIDEO INFO: Not wanting to touch this drama with a ten-foot-pool, North American distributors have made no official release as of this review. Until recently, the only way to view The Baby of Mâcon was (illegally) on YouTube, on a PAL video-cassette, or a Region 2 DVD.
Amazon acquired the rights in 2020 (doubtless as part of their quest to own everything ever put to celluloid and video) and Prime members could (briefly) watch it at no extra charge; currently it is available on their platform for VOD rental or purchase. On YouTube, FilmRise Features proudly hosts the complete film, currently available free. At the present time, Baby can randomly be found on other streaming services like Shout! Factory TV.
The streaming options may not provide the Criterion Collection perfection one might prefer, but their video and audio are sufficient for the opulent detail to be found in The Baby of Mâcon. For those who prefer physical media, the Scandinavian outfit “Atlantic Films” recently burned Greenaway’s sordid tale on to multi-region Blu-ray (buy). There are no special features, and you just may have to navigate through some foreign menus.