Having apprenticed in arthouse distribution, writer-director Daniel Graham has nobly devoted himself to reviving the aesthetics of once-prominent auteurs deemed unfashionable, uncommercial or both simultaneously. Graham’s 2017 film Opus Zero followed in the thematically dense, landscape-attentive footsteps of Theo Angelopoulos; this deeply eccentric follow-up tips a plumed hat to Peter Greenaway, casting Timothy Spall in what instantly resembles a post-Brexit update of 1987’s The Belly of an Architect. There’s a lot of vomit, and the film is something of a splurge itself, pebble-dashing the screen with ideas. Yet its better ones stick: whether new or regurgitated, the constituent elements are forever intriguing, even if Graham only partially pulls them together at the last.
Spall is at his most Hogarthian, making a full three-course meal out of the contradictions of architect Alfred Rott, a sharp-suited vulgarian (and self-described “intractable arsehole”) dispatched to sunkissed Malta to oversee the construction of a new concert hall. Fired after his employers clock the building’s resemblance to female genitalia, Rott’s certainties are further tested upon encountering the eponymous figure, an ailing dandy (played by Peter Stormare at his most Stormarean) who wants him to design his final resting place.
Graham, likewise, has much on his mind. This central narrative is interwoven with cutaways to 13th century monks and lepers, while a subplot concerning the Maltese authorities’ efforts to control a malaria outbreak suggests the script was being rewritten as the pandemic took hold.
Graham, however, is vastly more restrained around matters of the flesh than his predecessor, replacing Greenaway’s visual opulence with a pared-back, still-striking elegance. What remains is a comparable playfulness: as in Opus Zero, a droll humour is a bulwark against accusations of pretension. A Pasolini-via-Python prologue sees an overhydrated monk tell St Francis that “I need to visit the shrub”; practically the final line is “Your money’s over there, underneath the dildo”. Most disarmingly, Rott becomes actively sympathetic, an index of Spall’s enduring ability to humanise cantankerous cranks. As with Greenaway, the inbuilt ripeness may repel some viewers, and certain themes go under-metabolised, but it’s reassuring to see someone still tossing out curveballs like this.
• The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica is released on 17 September in cinemas.