Director: Peter Greenaway
Italy, the 17th century. A morality play performed before an audience. Set in a barren land, plagued with famine, no woman has given birth for many years. An ugly, old woman finally gives birth. Since no-one would believe that such a woman could mother such a healthy child, the woman’s daughter claims to be the mother, despite being a virgin. The daughter starts to exploit the child’s birth, selling blessings to the desperate townspeople. The Church resents the power the daughter has over the town and doubts the validity of a virgin birth, despite the daughter’s reference to the Nativity. The child begins to predict danger ahead for both himself and the daughter.
The daughter offers to prove to the son of the Bishop, who was especially sceptical, that she is a virgin. They start to make love, observed by the child. The child then instructs a bull to gore the Bishop’s son. The Church take the child into their care and exploits the child even more so than the daughter had. The daughter suffocates the child. Since she remains a virgin, the daughter cannot be hung. Instead, she is sentenced to be raped 208 times before being hung. It is then implied that the rapes occur for real; that it is no longer a performance. The Church carve the child’s body and sell parts as relics. Famine once again falls on Macon.
“You can stop acting”
“You wanted this role so badly, you ought to see it through”
The enfant terrible of 80s British cinema, Greenaway directed a series of intellectual but increasingly distasteful films; the epitome of which was 1989’s ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’. Even more notorious and controversial was ‘The Baby of Macon’, which shocked critics; many of whom have declared it a misanthropic and misogynistic film and was given a limited theatrical release, and remains relevant to this day, recently appearing as a reference point in a recent Guardian article on a Keira Knightley/Joe Wright domestic abuse advert. However, the film has its supporters, who argue that it subverts what its critics accuse it of. Even by Greenaway’s standards though, it remains perhaps the most divisive film of his entire career.
The most intriguing factor of ‘The Baby of Macon’ is its unique form, which makes it all the more confusing for its audience. Not confusing in the sense of understanding what is taking place, but who it’s taking place for, but in the method in which we react. The film ostensibly appears to be a rather objectionable morality play, invented by Greenaway himself, but adds drama and extra layers by referring to the audience that is watching the play, and showing the actors performing and acting naturally, backstage. It’s this confusion between what’s acting and what’s real that contributes to the confusion surrounding the film’s most troubling sequence – when the daughter is sentenced to 208 rapes. Even within the context of the play, this is a pretty difficult punishment to comprehend, though no doubt in keeping with the Jacobean revenge dramas that Greenaway is so fond of. But now I refer to the quotes that opened this review.
The daughter’s punishment is shown to the audience through curtains, at which the “actress” tells her “rapists” that “you don’t need to act any more, the audience can’t see you”. Yet they persevere, carrying out their “roles” for real. Her screams, heard by everyone outside these curtains, would just be interpreted as ultra-realistic acting, whilst only those within the boundaries of the curtains know what’s taking place. The actress genuinely is a virgin as well, hence she repeats the get out clause that she uses within the play; that a virgin cannot be hurt or punished. Soldiers are thrown in every few seconds to carry 0ut the punishment to the number, shouted out with great relish. Greenaway thankfully doesn’t leave his camera on the events that occur, although the screams are all too audible. Even those in the acting troupe and audience who think it’s just a performance find it all a little squeamish. Even more so than the carving of the child, a reference to ‘The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and His Lover’, this scene is the most troubling in the film and indeed one of the most troubling one is likely to witness in film. This ambiguous line between what’s real and what’s an act is handled with some skill, although one wonders what the main purpose behind it was. Certainly one feels it just provides Greenaway’s detractors with more ammunition.
Much like the rest of Greenaway’s work, ‘The Baby of Macon’ is a highly stylised film, directed from an artist’s perspective. The elaborate camerawork defies the theatrical basis of the film – it’s not static filming of a play but almost filming around a play. As the audience settles in to watch the drama, we first become aware of their presence, and the circular movement of the camera observes the audience between acts. Greenaway uses numerous tracking shots and cinematic techniques that contrast with the norms of theatre, as if to emphasise the artificiality of the project. The audience also interacts, cheering the jeering the action accordingly. Prince Cosimo Medici, a member of the audience, actually participates in the play at one point, whilst not only do the performers bow to the audience, but the audience themselves bow to us, the cinema audience. We’re reminded at every turn that what we’re watching is something where the distinction between what’s real and what isn’t is uncertain and it’s this that lends ‘The Baby of Macon’ its considerable power and impact.
A religious satire that uses the Nativity as its basis but uses it to mock human and ecclesiastical greed (note how the daughter’s reference to Mary’s virgin birth even receive the scorn of the Bishop and his son) and mass hysteria, ‘The Baby of Macon’ is an incredibly provocative film, albeit one that possibly has been misunderstood by its critics, who have preferred to consider the film’s excesses rather than its intent. Greenaway’s fortunes have subsequently declined, as he now struggles to finance his projects. British audiences and financiers had probably always considered him a difficult proposition. Perhaps ‘The Baby of Macon’ was something of a last straw, which is our loss and also indicative of the fact that we tend to chase away or ignore domestic film makers with an ounce of intellect or the desire to make difficult films.