DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway
FEATURING: Julia Ormond, Ralph Fiennes, Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey
PLOT: The story of a pseudo-miraculous infant unfolds in an elaborate passion play, which we watch along with 17th-century Italian aristocrats as they take in, and at times partake in, the play’s action.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Beyond my usual answer of, “quite frankly, every Greenaway movie probably qualifies for the List,” is the less fatalist reason that The Baby of Mâcon should count among the weirdest movies of all time because it makes all other Greenaway films (except, perhaps, The Falls) feel positively accessible and happy. More a recording of a hyper-sumptuous stage production than a film, this movie is such an embodiment of hyper-stylized hyper-formalism it proves that Peter Greenaway can, like Spinal Tap’s guitar amp, “go to eleven.”
COMMENTS: Despite his oeuvre’s opulence, stylishness, and glamour, Peter Greenaway could never be accused of catering to any audience other than himself. I mean this as no criticism. The reception to his films proves that there are non-Greenaways out there who can get on the same wavelength and, if not always enjoy, then at least appreciate the detailed grandeur of his vision. The Baby of Mâcon checks its way down the Greenaway list: stylized setting and dialogue, grandiose presentation, and a vicious current of sadism. We’ve seen that he can be lyrical (The Pillow Book), quirky (The Falls), and, sometimes, even commercially successful (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover). The Baby of Mâcon, however, is Greenaway at his angriest. Watching this film is like watching a back-alley murder scored by Wagner and choreographed by Baryshnikov.
The story is a simple plot of cynicism hijacked by vengeance. Sometime in the middle of the last millennium, a baby is born. The baby’s actual mother was long thought barren, and through some quick maneuverings, one of her daughters (Julia Ormond) claims to have birthed the child through some immaculate conception. A local Bishop’s son (Ralph Fiennes) is, along with his father, skeptical. The baby has his own evil streak and condemns the Bishop’s son to death by ox-goring for having almost taken (consensually) his false-mother’s virginity. The Bishop (Philip Stone) finds his son dead, takes the child, and exploits him further. The boy is killed by his false-mother, who herself is condemned to a fate that would be best left unsaid.
Nonetheless, it must be. Peter Greenaway, through all the pomp, costumery, and stylization of the dialogue, shows his true fury at religion, the aristocracy, and much else about societal order. With the blessing of the in-film audience member Cosimo Medici (Jonathan Lacey), the false-mother of the titular child is doomed to a death by rape. I won’t trouble you with the “logic” behind it, but through one of his beloved lists, Greenaway subjects his character to hundreds of such experiences, consecutively, at the hands of the local militia—all blessed and “pre-forgiven” for their acts by the Bishop. All this is done before an audience who gaze, along with us, at the cruelty. They, however, are observers of a “morality play”; we have the discomfort of acknowledging how immoral the play’s events are. The only blameless character, the Bishop’s son, is the unfortunate catalyst of this evil. He is referred to as a scientist before his demise, and seems of a level head. No room for him in this world of intrigue, superstition, and malice.
There is simultaneously not much more to say about this film, as well as extensive remarks to be made about the reams of allusions throughout. Uncharacteristically for Greenaway, there is often a great deal of on-screen confusion (à la Aleksey German), as the camera is often (seemingly) obtusely placed, mimicking the position of an audience member of a stage play. It is left to us to follow the action, scouring the screen for what is happening where.
A bit of trivia: this was Ralph Fiennes’ second film role. His third, which would make him famous, is substantially more uplifting and, even, more cheerful—Schindler’s List. Released the same year as The Baby of Mâcon, film distributors in North America found it easier to put the evils of the Holocaust on display than to reckon with the malignity found in Greenaway’s offering.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“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 Macon’…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (1997 screening)