Saturday, January 18, 2014

795. Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Running Time: 118 minutes
Directed By: Peter Greenaway
Written By: Peter Greenaway
Main Cast: Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, Joely Richardson, Bernard Hill, Jason Edwards


I had been looking forward to this one for quite some time. Not only is the title one that just seems to get my attention, but it would also be the second Peter Greenaway film I'd taken in. Despite not making the cut on my TOP 20 lists, a particular favorite of mine from THE BOOK was "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and I was anxious to see what else would come from the mind of Greenaway.

It's going to particularly difficult to relay the events of "Drowning by Numbers", mostly because the three main actresses all have the same character name - Cissie Colpitts. For the sake of making this easier, we'll call them Cissie #1 (the elder), Cissie #2 (her daughter) and Cissie #3 (the younger and the niece of the elder). The film begins with Jake - the husband of Cissie #1 - being unfaithful and having an affair with Nancy, a neighbor in town. Cissie #1 (Plowright) happens to catch Jake in the act and as he takes a bath, while intoxicated, she drowns him. Realizing she's just committed murder, she calls upon her friend Madgett (Hill), who also happens to be the town coroner. She requests that he cover up the murder for her, stating on the death certificate that Jake had a heart attack while bathing and drowned. Madgett hesitantly agrees. From there, we meet the rest of the Colpitt girls: Cissie #2 and Cissie #3. Later, we arrive at the home of Cissie #2 (Stevenson) and when she becomes enraged at her obese husband, she decides to drown him as well. When he's in the ocean, taking a swim, he gets a cramp and instead of rushing out to save his life, she rushes out to end it. Again Madgett is called upon to cover up the crime, except people are starting to suspect foul play. One who knows what the ladies' have been up to is the husband of Cissie #3 (Richardson), who threatens to go to the cops. Not wanting her family to be incriminated, Cissie #3 drowns her husband too - a life long non-swimmer. Meanwhile, we also meet the son of Madgett, Smut (Edwards), who becomes a prominent character by always showing up. The boy is fascinated with numbers and has a penchant for counting everything and documenting violent death, be it of humans or animals.

You know, I couldn't help but be reminded of Wes Anderson when observing the Smut character. He just seems like someone who would exist within the confines of one of Anderson's movies. Anyway, I really liked this one. It made me realize just how much I loved "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and how that movie REALLY should've been put into one of my TOP 20 lists. But seriously, what's not to like here? You have a very good little story. Three women, feeling betrayed by their spouses in one way or another take matters into their own hands. So you have a revenge story and a good one at that. However, the thing that really adds the cherry and the whipped cream to this movie is Greenaway's unique touch, how he makes everything seem very cinematic, while never undermining the story or his characters. THE BOOK makes note of Greenaway's dark perception of Britain and the seedy underbelly that exists and that's so true. This world doesn't seem to be quite real, it's too dark, too inelegant to actually be feasible. Everything about this film screams, "This is just a movie", yet not in a bad way. It's very much a film, but one that is easy to get lost in, almost like an "Alice in Wonderland" type world.

The home of Cissie #2, which seemed to resemble a house of cards.

Sure, it's not going to be for everyone, but I had a blast with it and wish there were a dozen more Greenaway films in THE BOOK. Looks like I'm going to have to take matters into my own hands and seek some out for myself. It's worth noting that this film was taken out of the "Life of Pi" edition of THE BOOK, in exchange for Greenaway's "The Draughtsman's Contract". I haven't seen that one, but I can't be happy about "Drowning by Numbers" being ousted. A true gem and yet another reason to thank THE BOOK.

RATING: 7.5/10  Really good and something that I needed after a round of stinkers. Nuff said.


January 14, 2014  5:19pm


  1. A slight surprise this.. Peter Greenaway is decidedly.. a taste that needs to be acquired.. verging into 'experimental' territory.
    I'm never quite sure how i cope with him... I usually get a bit restless and looking for them to end, but they are rather fascinating at the same time.
    Lets see.. I can count..'Drowning'.. 'Z and two naughts'. 'Cook the thief..', 'Pillow book', 'Prospero's books', .. and 'Draftsman's contract', and have never FULLY understood any of them. (OK, 'Cook..' is a thinly hidden stab at 80's Thatcherite British society)
    Of the rest, 'Draftsman's' has to be the most accessible, the one with the most obvious plot line.
    For that reason, I guess i accepted it's eviction as acceptable.. to make way for a more Greenawayesque film.. such as this one.

    But anyway.. what did I make of it? I'm still sticking with.. I don't know. An intriguing (I substituted that for interesting) film that .. well, it was more of an effort to watch than enjoy.. but one that stuck in the mind much better than - to use a recent example - Jacobs ladder, which I still cannot remember watching.
    (I remember buying it on an old VHS for about 10p in a charity shop...)
    For all that, a valid inclusion.. and, despite what i sai, one to be glad to have seen...

    1. Glad you were ultimately grateful for it Ray. I really liked it, despite probably not fully comprehending all of it's meanings. I had a lot of fun with it, although I did like "The Cook, the Theif..." better.


SINS OF OMISSION - Entry #66: La piscine/The Swimming Pool (1969)

Running Time: 120 minutes Directed By: Jacques Deray Written By: Jean-Claude Carriere, Jacques Deray, Alain Page Main Cast: Alain Del...