The Baby of Mācon (1993):
Of all I have read about this film, the best
summary is what Tuna wrote some time ago:
The Baby of Mācon (1993) is Peter
Greenway's strangest and most controversial film, and that is saying a
Critical opinion ranges from
"brilliant and possibly his best", through "he went a little too far",
all the way to "absolutely disgusting garbage". Frequently, when it
has been shown in theaters, a large part of the audience has left the
theater. It screened a few times in the US, but was too controversial
to find a distributor. It has just been released on video for the
first time in Australia. Although it is in PAL format, there is no
region code, so those of you who use a computer to watch DVDs can see
Since most of you are unlikely to see the film, I will write a
thorough plot summary. If it is something you might want to see, be
advised that it includes major spoilers.
A troupe is presenting a play in the palace of the Medicis in the 17th
century. They provided entertainment for Medici so he wouldn't have to
leave the palace and risk foul play from the rabble outside. The play
concerns a perfect baby born of a very old, ugly woman. The baby's
grown sister, Julia Ormond, decides the baby is much too pretty to be
from the old woman, and decides to say it is hers, and that it was a
virgin birth. At the time of the birth, the city of Mācon was
experiencing plague and famine, and the women were barren, which made
the birth all the more miraculous. Ormond decides to put on a Madonna
and Child act, and trades the baby's blessings for favors. Even though
this is obvious exploitation of the baby, the blessings seem to lift
the curse that has been on the city.
The local bishop, however, who wants to regain the church's power,
sends his son the scientist, Ralph Fiennes, to disprove her claims.
His position is that she is either a liar, and not the baby's mother,
or a whore who had the baby out of wedlock. Ormond decides to seduce
Fiennes, proving her virginity in the process. She arranges the whole
seduction scene in a stable, with the baby in a manger. At this point,
the baby, who realizes that his power depends on her status as a
virgin, demonstrates magical power, and uses a cow to gore Fiennes to
death. The bishop swears revenge on her, and declares that she is too
evil to raise this miraculous child, so makes him a ward of the
The church exploits the child far more than Ormond ever did,
auctioning his bodily excretions and secretions to the highest bidder
as holy relics. Ormond strangles the child in a blanket to get even.
The bishop wants her hanged, but there is a law against hanging
virgins. Then Medici, who isn't really clear as to whether this is a
play or real, and has joined in from time to time, suggests that they
put her in the custody of his palace guards, bless them, and have them
rape her, thus making her eligible for hanging. The bishop uses some
convoluted logic, and figures out that she should be raped well over
200 times. It is here that audiences tend to leave the theater. We
see, or rather hear, the first 16 of the rapes, which actually take
place behind a curtain. Nobody told the guards that this was a play,
so they actually rape her, and, at the end, she is dead. The public,
now deprived of the blessings of the child, divide his clothes, then
carve him up into relics to give them good luck.
Greenway shows sex in a non-erotic way here, and the rape is clearly
all violence and no titillation at all, even though we see lengthy
full-frontal and nude rear shots from Ormond. He is satirizing any
number of things, including divine intervention, the virgin birth, and
17th century politics and economics. He definitely pulled out all the
stops here. For me, by the time we got to the rape and mutilation
scenes, I was emotionally numb, and was not especially affected by
them. For me, it was a little hard to follow, especially since
Greenaway intentionally blurred the boundaries between the play and
real life, and certainly not a fun watch. It was very powerful,
however, and I can always count on Greenaway to show me something very
Here are my own thoughts:
Tuna's description of the plot is as good as any. Frankly, I'm not
too sure what was happening because of the convoluted structure of
placing a play within a play within a film, and because it is never
really clear who is in the play and who in the audience, nor where the
stage actually ends. The audience watching the play makes a good
example. Are they part of the play, or are they really supposed to be
in the audience as spectators? I got the impression that the royal
ugly dudes were the only real audience, and that everyone else was
part of the cast, including the "audience." That would explain why the
members of the audience always responded conveniently on cue. Or
perhaps that was just a touch of surrealism. Then there was the dense,
naive DeMedici. Is he a character in the play, or are they performing
the play for him? If the latter, then why does he seem to think the
play is real? Are we supposed to believe he is that stupid? Or maybe
he isn't that stupid, since a lot of the things in the play are real,
like the death of several actors in character. Perhaps the royal ugly
dude is the only one who understands that the line between stagecraft
and reality is a blurry one at best.
And so forth ...
And then, if the whole baby thing is a fake to begin with, all
engineered by the sister, then how does it happen that the baby really
has magic powers and can command the ox to kill Ralph Fiennes? And if
the baby has those magic powers, why doesn't he use them to prevent
Probably the strangest thing in the entire film is the entire
premise of the first scene. The whole legend of the blessed baby is
generated because the crowd can't believe that such an ugly mother
could give birth to such a beautiful baby. Huh? But, but, but ...
Julia Ormond is the baby's sister, so the same mother gave birth to
Julia, didn't she? I've noticed that Julia looks pretty decent, so why
did the crowd expect any major change from her younger brother?
The entire film is filled with those sorts of "suspension of
disbelief" issues, and the line between the play and reality is
confusing even when it is explained. Julia Ormond is actually playing
an actress who is playing the sister of the baby, right? So how do the
other actors, obviously jealous of her, coax a convincing performance?
When the time comes for the rape scene, the two hundred actors
actually rape her, thus assuring that her acting in that scene will be
credible. Of course, this kills her but, what the hell, I guess they
don't have to do a matinee the next day, and she probably has an
understudy, although I have to think the understudy might have grave
doubts about stepping into the role, given what happened to Julia. One
thing that was very interesting was the fact that the last few rapists
didn't seem to notice that she was dead, so I infer that she
didn't die in the middle of the process, or even after the 205th guy,
but waited until all 206 were finished.
Oh, well, what can you say? Peter Greenaway lives in his own world.
He makes slanted, odd, personal films very similar to the
"underground" films that I used to watch in Greenwich Village in the
late 60s, except that those Village People didn't have the budget to
hire big stars and create elaborate 17th century costumes for a cast
of hundreds. Although his films feature extensive male and female
frontal nudity, cannibalism, infanticide, explicit gore, and
(arguably) the exploitation of child actors, Greenaway is an aesthete,
not an exploitation filmmaker. He is obsessed with perspective,
clutter, lighting, symmetry, decay, numbers, and the mystical power of
counting. The frames of this film about the 17th century look
remarkably like the paintings of the same era, and attempt to recreate
the techniques used in that century to simulate depth on a flat
canvas. (Greenway himself is a serious student of art.)
How many other directors consistently feature classical music,
Renaissance aesthetics, and cannibalism together in one place? Ol'
Peter Greenaway is truly one of a kind.
One thing which astounds me is that he always seems to manage to
get people to pay for his films, even though his previous ones never
seem to have sold any tickets. The Baby of Macon didn't even get the
customary two week run in a few arthouse venues in the United States.
Given its ability to attract controversy without attracting ticket
buyers, it disappeared within a week from the very few theaters daring
enough to screen it. In some places it was shown a single time (see
the review in the Washington Post). Yet the opinion of Greenaway in
the artistic community is so reverential and there is so much prestige
in working with him, that various art subsidies and national film
boards consistently pony up the guilders and pounds he needs to keep
producing his small-audience masterpieces.
I did read several comments and reviews about this film, but I
never encountered any balanced viewpoints except Tuna's. The rest of
the people either said that the film is disgusting and vile, or else
said that they despaired for any culture that does not instantly
enshrine Greenaway as its resident genius, and that the people who
find him disgusting are themselves disgusting and repressed and
Frankly, I think every one of them is all wet.
Greenaway is one of those people who reaches for the stars. He
tries to make profound points in very powerful and dramatic ways, by
using the unusual combination of shock and highbrow aesthetics. The
fact that he is an aesthete does not mean he walks on water. One
cannot confuse good intentions with execution, just as one cannot
assume that every film about the holocaust is a masterpiece. Sometimes
Greenaway succeeds, sometimes not. The people who offer him
unqualified praise fail to see the glaring failures in his films. I
have no objection to his use of surrealism, his destruction of the
fourth wall, his obsessions, or his extensive use of nudity and
violence. I also appreciate his extensive preparation and his use of
the techniques of painting to manufacture unique cinematic images. I
admire his willingness to choreograph complicated scenes, rehearse
them extensively, and film them in an uninterrupted single take. On
the other hand, I often find him high-handed, pretentious, repetitious
without justification, and just plain boring. Furthermore, I do not
share any of his obsessions. If I had to sit next to this guy at a
dinner party, I would try desperately to switch seats, even though I
might admire him from afar.
This particular film has a lot of his strengths and a lot of his
weaknesses. It has a lot of the pretentiousness of Prospero's Books
and the unrelenting tedium of The Draughtsman's Contract. On the other
hand, it has some of the brilliant visual composition of The Cook, the
Thief, His Wife and Her Lover or A Zed and Two Noughts, some of the
camera wizardry of Prospero's Books, and some of the perfectly
realized aesthetics of The Pillow Book.
Let us be frank. Greenway's films are brilliant, but aloof. 99% of
the people in the world will hate every Greenaway film, even the most
accessible ones. The odds are if you are not turned off by his subject
matter, you'll be confused by his complexity, or you'll fall asleep
when he starts in with the slow, plodding, music and the endless
repetition. Even among those in the remaining one percent of the world
- filmgoers who like some Greenaway films - 99% of them will hate this
one, which combines all of his worst excesses in one script, even
though it also features some of his best achievements as well. On the
other hand, you may be the one in ten thousand who really craves
sharing this intense personal film-making experience, and will
appreciate the many and varied talents he puts on display in this
I am not one of those.
I did make the first cut. I like some Greenaway films. I like
Pillow Book and Drowning by Numbers, for example, and I'm glad I
watched many of the others. But this one ... meh! I love Julia
Ormond, and I watched it to see her stark naked. If there had been no
nudity, I would have shut it off after about ten minutes, not because
I was shocked, but because I was bored to tears. That's what I did
with The Draughtsman's Contract, absent any meaningful nudity. Why
There is a lot of nudity from extras and unknowns. A lot.
Especially male frontals. The key nudity is, of course, full
frontals from the two young stars, Ralph Fiennes and Julia
Ormond, neither of whom had yet hit the big time. Greenaway's
timing was uncanny. One year later he could not have gotten
those two to do extensive frontal nudity on camera. Fiennes
would become a mega-star in his very next film (Schindler's
List), and Ormond would hit the A-list the very next year by
playing Brad Pitt's co-star in Legends of the Fall, then
following soon after with the Audrey Hepburn role in the remake
- Julia Ormond
- Got a half million bucks sitting around?
FOR SALE: "Climax World Famous Gentleman's Club and world's only
- Remember Eucalyptus, the low budget Australian film which was
to pair Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman when the two big stars
agreed to do it for the good of the Aussie film industry? Well,
you can just forget that co-operative and altruistic bullshit, cuz
Russell is feeding Eucalyptus to the koalas.
- I love the last paragraph of the story: The movie was to
have been shot in Bellingen, New South Wales. Local Buffalo
O'Brien said yesterday: "People around here are a bit
disappointed, but mostly they just shrug their shoulders and go,
'Oh well, that's just Hollywood types being a bunch of whingeing
Iverson scores 60 for the home crowd.
Overall, 65% of all Americans favor schools teaching creationism,
including 37% who want creationism taught instead of evolution.
Rhodes mayor wants to rebuild the Colossus, a wonder of the
- I always wondered what qualified this as a freakin'
"wonder". It was a big statue that fell down 60 years after it
was built. Maybe the third-rate architects had a
disproportionately powerful voice in the Ancient Wonders
- By the way, do you know of the pictures of ships sailing
between the legs of the Colossus to enter the harbor? That's
imaginary stuff created centuries later. The original was a
regular old large statue on a platform, about the same size as
Liberty in New York harbor.
Gondoliers on strike. And they are on strike for
longer hours! (They want to discuss other subjects as well,
like splinter-free poles. Oh, and the heavier ones want to wear
vertical stripes to look slimmer.)
Another Jessica Simpson bikini pic from Dukes of Hazzard. Top
'The Aviator' wins best picture at the BAFTA awards.
There was no Eastwood/Scorsese competition in the U.K., however,
as Mike Leigh won best director for Vera Drake. The screenplay
awards went to Eternal Sunshine and Sideways. The acting awards
went to Staunton, Foxx, Owen, and Blanchett.
The Angelina Jolie homewrecker rap
Democratic party officially surrenders future elections.
Looks like they're really going to install Screamin' Howie
as party chairman, hoping to put the "party" back into the Party!!
He'll have a tough battle to win the hearts and minds of the
centrist swing voters who decide the elections. As one party wag
said, "The image of the party and of Dean has shifted so far left
they look at us as the Haight-Ashbury of parties. There's a
perception that he's Ken Kesey."
- Forget the friggin' Oscars, here are the results you've been
The 2004 Corndog Styling Competition Winners!
A new still from Revenge of the Sith.
Letterman's "Top Ten Signs You're In A Bad Relationship"
New York buzzing over Christo's latest crazy scheme: 'Gates'
Connecticut Bar to Host Naked Karaoke Contest. If
you're near Berlin, Connecticut, and you've always wanted to get
drunk and sing naked or even to watch other drunks sing naked,
last night (Saturday) was your night.
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are the latest movie reviews available at scoopy.com.
- The yellow asterisks indicate that I wrote the
review, and am deluded into thinking it includes humor.
- If there is a white asterisk, it means that
there isn't any significant humor, but I inexplicably determined
there might be something else of interest.
- A blue asterisk indicates the review is written
by Tuna (or Junior or Brainscan, or somebody else besides me)
- If there is no asterisk, I wrote it, but am too
ashamed to admit it.