Release Date(s)1988 (May 30, 2023)
Studio(s)Prestige (Severin Films)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
Drowning by Numbers was the fourth feature film from writer/director/artist/gamesman Peter Greenaway, and in many ways, it proved to be something of a tipping point in his career as a filmmaker. Greenaway has always been more concerned with form than he is with conventional storytelling, but his earlier efforts like The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Belly of an Architect had at least offered the pretense of being narrative films. From Drowning by Numbers forward, Greenaway’s formalist instincts would take over once and for all, and the riddles, games, and references that had lurked in the background of his earlier work would come to the fore. The formalism of Drowning by Numbers is announced right in the title, as it offers an overt explanation of the structure of the entire film. There’s a literal counting game going on throughout, with the numbers 1 through 100 hidden in plain sight in his various tableaus, worked into the sets, costumes, props, or other background details. Once the tally reaches 100, the closing credits roll.
Greenaway didn’t choose that number arbitrarily, as 100 signifies the point at which the numerical cycle starts to repeat. Drowning by Numbers opens with a young girl (Natalie Morse) skipping rope while naming and counting the stars she can see overhead, at least until she reaches 100. Cissie Colpitts (Joan Plowright) asks her why she stopped at that point, since there are more than a hundred stars in the sky, and the girl responds, “A hundred is enough. Once you’ve counted a hundred, all the other hundreds are the same.”
Repetition is one of the main concepts in Drowning by Numbers, both formally and narratively. Cissie Colpitts (Plowright), Cissie Colpitts (Juliet Stevenson), and Cissie Colpitts (Joely Richardson) are a mother, daughter, and niece who share the same name as well as the same disenchantment with their respective husbands and lovers. One at a time, they find the ultimate answers to resolve their unhappiness and regain their personal freedom. Their solutions leave them with a pile of corpses and some rather sticky personal situations, so they enlist the help of the local coroner Madgett (Bernard Hill) to keep the results under wraps.
Madgett and his young son Smut (Jason Edwards) pass their time by playing games that they’ve invented for themselves, often taking familiar diversions like cricket and giving them appropriately macabre twists. As a result, it’s not much of a leap for them to join in the games of sex and death with the three Colpitts women. Yet when playing any game, it’s always a mistake to underestimate your opponent. Regardless of narrative details, Drowning by Numbers is really about nothing more than gamesmanship—the games that all three Cissie Colpitts play with their husbands, the games that that they play with Madgett, the games that Madgett tries to play with them, and the games that Smut tries to play with everyone. Inevitably, every game has to have its winners and its losers, and when the stakes are as high as they are in Drowning by Numbers, death is the inevitable victor over all. It’s a strange game with strange rules, and sometimes the only winning move is not to play.
Greenaway has described Drowning by Numbers as an ironic game of riddles, games, sex, and death, where the good aren’t always rewarded and the bad don’t always lose; in other words, it’s a moral fable told immorally. Anyone who plays the game of life and death has the Sword of Damocles hanging above their heads, and the fate of the winners and losers is held by a very fragile thread indeed:
“But this guessing game has its own rules
The good don’t always win.”
Of course, in any Peter Greenaway film, the ultimate winner is Peter Greenaway; he’s the one gamesman to rule them all. The fact that Smut invents games that he plays with everyone else is no accident, since Greenaway has acknowledged that the boy is a fictionalized version of himself at age 10. Greenaway has always been a gamesman, and the cinema has been the ultimate expression of his gamesmanship. Given the presence of Smut in the story of Drowning by Numbers, it would be easy to read it as being one of his most personal films, but doing so would be a losing move. It’s a mistake to define something as being personal solely because of any autobiographical details that it may contain. Greenaway explores his personal obsessions with every single infinitesimally small detail of every film that he makes, and so they’re all his most personal films, every last one of them. Some people are described as having poured their hearts and souls into a given work of art, but Greenaway pours his head into his films as well, making him arguably one of the most personal filmmakers who has ever lived. Anyone who feels that his films are cold and impersonal hasn’t just missed the plot; they’ve been checkmated by the grandmaster.
Cinematographer Sacha Vierny shot Drowning by Numbers on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.66:1 for its theatrical release. This version utilizes a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, with the restoration supervised by Peter Greenaway, and graded for High Dynamic Range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are included). Greenaway’s films are all about the details, and every frame of Drowning by Numbers is awash with an almost overwhelming quantity of detail, all of which is resolved perfectly in this rendition. Freeze-frame on any one of his tableaus, and you could spend hours examining every corner of the image, like doing a hidden object puzzle—finding all of the numbers 1-100 is a game in and of itself. Fine textures are also nicely resolved, like the rocks on the beach, or the delicate wings of the butterflies when they’re seen in closeup. The grain varies a bit from shot to shot, looking heavier during low-light sequences, but that’s likely how everything was shot. (Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any details available regarding the cameras, lenses, or stocks that Vierny used.) The HDR grades reproduce every subtle shade of Greenaway’s precisely designed color scheme, and the contrast range and black levels are both outstanding. Greenaway’s films have received an inconsistent treatment on home video up to this point in time, but hopefully this 4K rendition of Drowning by Numbers portends great things to come for more of his work.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. Drowning by Numbers was released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, so this is a four-channel mix matrix encoded into two. There are indeed encoded surround effects present, like the sounds of the surf, fireworks, and roaming birds. The dialogue remains clear throughout (regardless of how opaque that it may be sometimes), and the minimalist score by the always reliable Michael Nyman is reproduced perfectly here. Greenaway asked Nyman to base his score on the 2nd movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, and excerpts from a performance of that movement are heard in the soundtrack as well.
Severin’s 4K Ultra HD release of Drowning by Numbers is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film. There’s also a Limited Edition slipcover available directly from Severin, featuring artwork by Greenaway himself. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
DISC ONE: UHD
- Audio Commentary with Peter Greenaway
- Trailer (2:09)
DISC TWO: BD
- Audio Commentary with Peter Greenaway
- Painting by Numbers (14:28)
- Three Women and a Coroner (9:53)
- Fear of Drowning (27:15)
- Some Greenaway Game Concept (5:29)
- Trailer (2:19)
Greenaway’s commentaries are much like his films: they’re filled with gamesmanship and references. He loves giving extremely precise details regardless of whether or not they’re particularly important, like the travel distances and times to the location where they shot everything. On the other hand, he does identify many genuinely significant details as well, so part of the game here is sorting through which is which. Some of these particulars are fairly obvious, while others are much less so—for example, Madgett’s name is a portmanteau of the words for magic and maggot. Greenaway says that Drowning by Numbers is about the games that we play regarding love, sex (or the lack thereof), and death. The numbering scheme is a way of demonstrating that the cinema itself is filled with numbers—gauges, frame rates, and the like. He also talks about Smut being a fictionalized version of himself, which is a genuine key to unlocking the film. He does lapse into silence occasionally, but this is one instance where that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it provides the listener a moment to think about what he just said. He also describes what’s happening onscreen occasionally, but in a way that provides his own flavor. Greenaway admits that Drowning by Numbers sets up games, schemes, and references all throughout, and his commentary does the exact same thing.
Note that there’s an authoring error on the Blu-ray—selecting the commentary from the Bonus menu plays Some Greenaway Game Concepts instead. The commentary can still be selected via the Setup menu, or else by using the player’s audio button. (The UHD plays normally.)
Painting by Numbers is an interview with Greenaway, whose gamesmanship extends to making puns with his own name during the introduction. From childhood, he was fascinated by impermanence and decay, so he turned to drawing and painting as a way of preserving things. His work in the cinema was a natural outgrowth of that. He provides interesting examples of how the rules of painting have informed the way that he composes the film frame. Devices like that and the numerology in Drowning by Numbers are his way of reminding everyone about the inherent artificiality of cinema. Three Women and a Coroner is an interview with Bernard Hill, who talks about his experiences working with Greenaway, and some of his choices in how to play the character. He provides different explanations for why his character was named Madgett, and also for why Greenaway used the numbering scheme.
Fear of Drowning is an archival featurette that was produced for Channel 4 in the U.K. It was directed by Greenaway himself, with assistance from Vanni Corbellini. It’s not so much a making-of documentary as it is a deconstruction of Drowning by Numbers, exploring its themes and identifying many of its references. Greenaway being Greenaway, it sometimes obscures as much as it clarifies, but that’s all part of the game. Interestingly enough, it mixes film footage with video overlays, so it presages the kind of multilayered film and video effects that he would use just three years later in Prospero’s Books. Some Greenaway Game Concepts is a set of ten different pieces of artwork created by Greenaway in 1988, most of them in pencil, but there are a few collages as well. They’re accompanied by text (written by Greenaway) explaining the nature of some of the gamesmanship in the film. While the explanations are frequently as baffling as the games themselves, there are a few clues hidden within these that do shed some light on Drowning by Numbers.
It’s a fine collection of extras that both illuminate and obfuscate the meaning of Drowning by Numbers, exactly as Greenaway would have intended. It’s an enjoyable way to get lost in the world of his games and references, and the review above will demonstrate just how hard that it is to resist playing along with the master gamesman. Combined with a stellar 4K presentation of the film, Severin’s UHD set for Drowning by Numbers is a wonderful opening move in the format for a director who seems to have been tailor made for 4K. Hopefully, this is the sign of more great UHD releases of his films yet to come.
- Stephen Bjork
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