CAPSULE: DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill

PLOT: Three women bearing the same name resolve their issues with their spouses by drowning them, enlisting the local coroner to aid in covering up their murderous spree. All the while, the film itself counts inexorably from 1 to 100, which marks the movie’s end.

Still from Drowning by Numbers (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When you put Peter Greenaway behind the camera, there’s going to be some weirdness as a matter of course. But while the movie has striking tableaus composed with his painterly eye, most of the oddity comes from the numerical gambit, with a touch of cavalier attitude toward the macabre.

COMMENTS: There’s no rule that says cinematic murder must be violent, or even serious. Consider the corpse lying in the bucolic countryside of The Trouble with Harry or the repeated deaths of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. So Drowning by Numbers is following in a grand comedic tradition, right down to the titular crime occurring, like the best of jokes, in threes. However, if the murders themselves are relatively light on shock value, they are also surprisingly light on motive. The first husband is ostensibly murdered for unfaithfulness, although there’s little anger in the crime. The second is dispatched merely for being grossly inattentive. By the time we get to the third, there seems to be no real reason for it at all, other than the fact that, hey, we’ve got another husband to kill. The plot is as inured to the horrors of homicide as its murderers.

Drowning by Numbers is that rare film where it’s a tossup as to whether the tone is misogynist or misandrist. True, the men are largely unsympathetic, and that extends to coroner Madgett, who ultimately proves too aggressive in pursuit of romantic recompense for his role as accomplice. But it’s not as though women come off especially well, either. Even with three female leads, the movie doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test, since their conversations are largely about the men they love/kill. The three Cissies (who might be three generations, and who, curiously, share a name with a B-movie actress) are shockingly cold; they are not righteous, defensive, or even defiant about their acts. Murder seems to be a decision on par with re-arranging the furniture. Maybe this detachment is not entirely their fault, though, as the entire community seems to be largely apathetic about a sudden spike in the mortality rate. In addition to all this drowning, the film features a self-mutilation that is repeatedly dismissed as trifling, an irresponsible vehicular manslaughter that seemingly affects only one character, and a suicide that goes almost completely unobserved. Perhaps the film’s tone is really just nihilist.

Why so carefree about human life? Probably because of all the games. Characters are constantly playing complex games for which Madgett’s son/apprentice (blood relationships are poorly defined in this movie) must describe their arcane rules. They’re something to do in between all the murders. So it stands to reason that Greenaway himself needs a game to distract himself (and us) from the proceedings…which brings us to the numbers. An alternative way to watch the movie is to spend your time looking for the numbers as they advance, like a kind of scavenger hunt. Sometimes they are subtle, hidden on a far wall or tossed off in dialogue; other times they are absurdly obvious, like on a sign awkwardly nailed to a tree or, most amusingly, as identification for a pair of foot racers who stumble upon one of the drownings and proceed to stalk the merry murderesses for the remainder of the film, still attired in their running gear. But the numbers don’t really tie in to the story in any way, aside from a prologue that promises an ending at 100. It’s just a gimmick. A bold one editorially, showing how meticulously Greenaway has laid out his shooting story, but a gimmick nonetheless. It’s essential in the same way a book is on a sea cruise: just another way to pass the time.

Drowning by Numbers is a movie about games, motivated by games, and comprised of games. So your tolerance for the film probably depends on how eager you are to play.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You either love [Greenaway]… or you hate him. In either case, you do not understand him. The characters in ‘Drowning by Numbers’ are all completely credible people, who speak in ordinary English and inhabit a real landscape (except for the numbers), and behave in ways that would not shock the reader of a mystery novel. It is just the arbitrary pattern that seems strange, as one husband after another goes to his watery doom.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: DROWNING BY NUMBERS (1988)”

  1. The Hangman’s Cricket scene on the beach alone ought to be enough to get this film on your ‘weird’ list. Just look at the rules: “The object of Hangman’s Cricket is for each competitor to retain his allotted nine lives by scoring runs with the ‘Cat’, or bat, defending his lower leg from being struck by the ball. There is no limit to the number of players as long as each has an identity agreed by the two referees. Each identity has its own characteristic which must be obeyed.

    The more important identities are the Emperor, the Widow, the Judge, the Hangman, the Ghost, the Red Queen, the Fat Lady, the Dunce, the Businessmen, the Adulterer, the Harlot, the Gravedigger, the Maiden, the Twins, the Chinaman, the Savage, the Cook, the General, the Prisoner, the Beggarman, the Thief and the Priest.

    The Adulterer can only pair with the Harlot when each has an even number of lives above twelve, though the Dunce can cancel this, provided the Sailor is not batting.

    The Mother-in-Law is only allowed five runs at a time after which she must defer to the Gravedigger who is allowed to add the number of lives or runs of each competitor he bowls out to his own.

    The Maiden is always obliged to be a spectator unless she is partnered by the Twins. The Businessman is never to be trusted. His score is determined by the number of runs scored by his predecessor at the wicket. He is at liberty to change the rules of the game only when he hits a catch. Although it goes against the grain, he naturally tries to get players to catch him out.

    The Businessman can be saved if he submits to a Red Queen – but in doing so, he must pay a forfeit.

    The full flavour of Hangman’s Cricket is best appreciated after the game has been played for several hours. By then every player has a fair understanding of the many rules and knows which character he wants to play permanently.

    Finally an outright loser is found and is obliged to present himself to the Hangman…who is always merciless.”

    I love your site, but how can Greenaway’s The Falls still not be on the list? Sort it out.

  2. “Drowning by Numbers” is considerably weirder than Greenaway’s more popular “The Cook The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (that made it to the LIST) which, in comparison, is a straight-forward revenge tale. The young boy setting up fireworks celebrations around roadkill is one of the many strange additions to “Drowning by Numbers.” Guess you can’t put every Greenaway film on the list but still.

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