Interview: Peter Greenaway

He's made dozens of films but only two have been critical and commercial successes. And the latest - telling the life story of a young man through the contents of 92 suitcases - is unlikely to be the third. But Peter Greenaway doesn't mind - the English just don't understand him, he says

Before we begin, Peter Greenaway would like to establish my credentials. "You are a film journalist?" he says. We are in Compton Verney, a stately home turned art gallery, which is hosting his exhibition, the Tulse Luper Suitcases, an accompaniment to his film of the same name.

I confess that I am not.

"But you have, perhaps, been to art school?" No, I say, I'm afraid I haven't. "Then what," asks the 54-year-old director, towering above me in his Dracula-black coat, face hanging like a moon, "is your specialism?"

Miscellany, I reply.

He gives me a long, hard look.

Like a lot of people reputed to be crazy, Greenaway's view of the world adheres not to chaos, but to a complex set of codes, lists and systems. He doesn't believe in red herrings or non-sequiturs, but rather in the idea that everything is connected and thus relevant to the artist; no morsel escapes his despotic eye. As a result his films, which for 25 years have explored the relationship between order and disorder, have an eccentric quality - a habit of promoting the incidental to such a degree that, in Britain at least, they are often thought to be prohibitively difficult.

Tulse Luper is unlikely to reverse this trend. In the hands of a mainstream film-maker, it would chronicle a young man's adventures as he travels around the world accruing life lessons, a sort of Welsh Augie March. In Greenaway's hands, it's a succession of loosely connected episodes, non-sequential, sometimes non-verbal, governed by the number 92 (the atomic value of uranium - it uses the nuclear age as a backdrop) and is related to a slew of other Luper products that Greenaway has created: DVDs, plays, and the exhibition we are currently wandering around, which tells the story of the fictional Luper's life through the contents of 92 suitcases.

It is a monstrous project, a sort of arthouse equivalent to the spin-off and merchandising efforts of the big studios. "He's a cultural omnivore," wrote Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic, in 1991, "who eats with his mouth open" and Greenaway smiles garishly as he repeats it. "She's very witty," he says, "but of course hyper-critical." He is a firm believer in the principle that controversy validates quality.

We are in one of the exhibition rooms. Ninety-two suitcases hang from the ceiling. Sounding a little like Richard Burton doing Hamlet, Greenaway explains to me why his model of film-making is more realistic than that of his more traditional peers. "If you think about it," he says, "most cinema is built along 19th-century models. You would hardly think that the cinema had discovered James Joyce sometimes. Most of the cinema we've got is modelled on Dickens and Balzac and Jane Austen. But also, we have a deeply text-based cinema. So even if you want to make an original film, you've still got to have a text, because no one is going to have any confidence in you going to a studio or a producer with three paintings, four lithographs and some scribble on the back of an envelope. There's not that confidence in the notion of the image."

Given Greenaway's track record, this doesn't seem like an altogether unreasonable stance for the financiers to take. Of the scores of films he has made, he has had two critical and commercial successes, a murder mystery called The Draughtsman's Contract, and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, a brilliant study of greed and desire starring Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon.

"My biggest critical success was The Draughtsman's Contract, but then it wasn't the English who particularly thought so, it was the French, who are much more interested in Cartesian logic: in finding your way through more cerebral puzzle-making, if you wish. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover earned about $28m in America and so obviously reached an audience of at least 10 million people. I can't command a Spielberg audience, but that's not too bad."

I ask if he ever looks back at his more obscure films - Prospero's Books, for example, a large proportion of which is devoted to John Gielgud dancing about in the buff - and wishes he'd put a few more conventional storytelling elements into them?

"I've never thought that, no. I always think that there is enough for people to hang on to, otherwise I wouldn't still be standing here talking to you after 25 years of film-making. People would have abandoned the pursuit of Greenaway a long time ago." I thought they had, more or less, certainly in this country. But Greenaway dismisses English attitudes to him as the product of failures in the education system. "English culture is highly literary-based. So much so that a French cinematographer like Truffaut would suggest that English cinema is a contradictory term."

Greenaway lives in Holland with his wife and three-year-old child. (And no, he insists, late fatherhood hasn't mellowed him). He has two daughters in their 30s from a previous marriage. He misses the "mysterious" English landscape, he says, with its hills and corners. He does not miss the English critics. He says, "Time after time people like yourself come, and we speak very pleasantly and then I find I've been stabbed in the back. I don't know why, perhaps you could supply the answer. I obviously irritate people. I obviously antagonise them. Maybe it's because I'm too goddamn clever. Maybe it's because I do my own exegesis and beat them to it. Maybe my sophistication is much, much greater than theirs so that irritates them."

We consider this for a moment. Maybe, I suggest, English people don't like him because he says un-English things such as, "People don't like me because I'm too clever." He looks puzzled.

"Maybe," he says.

Ken Russell once said that on the basis of his films, Greenaway apparently loathes the human race.

"Well he obviously hasn't understood, like the French and Italians do, that I come from the same country as Monty Python, that there is a great sense of humour in all this and a great sense of touching irony in it all. And people in these countries laugh long and loud and appreciate the sense of humour, but for some reason the English will refuse to jump that barrier. I have often been accused of being a misogynist too, which I think is deeply, deeply misplaced."

And misanthropy?

"I suppose I am gently cynical about notions of who we think we are, but I certainly don't hate my fellow man. I think my cinema, although it might often deal with death and decay, is highly celebratory. It's full of enjoyments and ideas and it's rich in its textures and has a great excitement about living. And a lot of humanity. Some people would say again that my attitudes are cold and cerebral; I suppose if you're thinking about American sentimental movies I suppose they would be. Coleridge famously said, if you wear your heart on your sleeve, watch out, it'll stay there."

We move to a different room. There are more suitcases here, overflowing with Luper artifacts. It reminds me of one of those school projects in which in the interests of "living history", kids are made to collect bits of old junk and manufacture ancient manuscripts by staining paper with tea. There is a case of apples (92 of them). "The apple is about information, the fruit of knowledge and there are 92 events relating to apples in the film," says Greenaway.

There is a case of cigars, one of dead fish, train tickets, dolls, money, skulls, letters, etc, all zanily curated to illustrate Greenaway's theory of representation: that there are other, better ways of organising information than story-telling. But somewhere between the theory and the execution, Tulse Luper fails to come alive. Greenaway would attribute this to the philistinism of his audience, to the fact that we are conditioned to process information in straight lines only. But this doesn't quite get round the fact that theory without sentiment is what text books are for and that, as in so much of his work, the flashes of humour and pathos are never quite substantial enough to carry the intellectual weight dumped on top of them.

In the main exhibition hall, scenes from the film are projected on the walls. Over the noise, Greenaway says, "I believe there's no such thing as history, there's only historians, and in English we've got this word HIStory, but what about her story? So that, in the end, the history of the world would be a history of every single one of its members, but of course you could never get to grips with that. So we try and tell many many stories, in lots of fragmented ways, from lots of different viewpoints and by lots of different people." (This is an edited version; the actual speech is much longer.) I ask Greenaway if he isn't anxious that, in trying to tell too many people's stories, he winds up telling nobody's?

"Well, the actual import of that question is important to me, because if I'm going to demonstrate that the cinema is not the best place to tell narratives, then to tell you thousands of narratives almost implies that. Just consider your journey down to here, hundreds of thousands of things have happened to you, you sift all that out, you take what you want, and the rest is put in your memory, put on the back boiler."

Do you have any self-doubt?

"Ummmm. Well I think my films are always quite self-reflexive and always question why am I doing this, is this the right way to do it, what is cinema for, does it have a purpose? Ahh. I learned the other day that this exhibition was incredibly expensive, I'd no idea." He pauses. "So maybe twinges of, 'Have we done something here that's worthy of the efforts being put into it?'" His life's work, he says, has been about "organising, collating, trawling". And he talks for another 10 minutes or so, uninterrupted.

"OK," he says finally, "that is a long answer to your short question. But we're getting there."

· The Tulse Luper Suitcases exhibition is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire (tel: 01926 645541).


Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

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