The story is inspired by a real man, 16th century Dutch engraver Hendrick Goltzius, whose legacy includes several erotic prints based on stories from the Bible. Here, Greenaway reinvents Goltzius (Ramsey Nasr, the Dutch Poet Laureate, no less) as not just a painter and wannabe publisher, but the leader of a troupe of actors and artists -- The Pelican Company. Together they try to convince the local bigwig, the Margrave of Alsace (F Murray Abraham, in a masterful turn), to finance the purchase of a state-of-the-art printing press, the better for Goltzius to disseminate his biblical erotica. They do this by staging elaborate tableaux, usually featuring nudity and often full-on sex, for the lustful Margrave's entertainment -- mini-plays using Bible fables to explore six sexual taboos: fornication, incest, adultery, prostitution, 'seduction of the young' and necrophilia. Even within Margrave's famously liberal court, the plays cause religious and moral outrage, and as free speech and tolerance begin to crumble, some members of the troupe are condemned, some even killed.
The intended audience of Greenaway devotees (because we don't think Greenaway's overly concerned here with recruiting new fans) is a small enough one, but the copious full-frontal nudity, the erections, the torture and the frequent sex mean this is highly unlikely to get much of a Stateside release at all, save on the safety of DVD. Which is a shame for those few people, because some of those intricate tableaux really do warrant watching on the big screen. However, a handful of startling images, no matter how original, do not a great movie make, and, while there are other positives (we really enjoyed the whistle-stop art history lectures that pepper the narrative), ultimately the film is just too damn long to be so ponderous. And we spend far too much of it in the company of Goltzius, he of the ludicrously over-egged Dutch accent; what is quirky, arch and knowing in the first hour, becomes grating, cartoonish and tiresome by the end of the second.
A graph of our engagement with 'Goltzius' would probably show something of a seismic scribble of peaks and troughs that trail off to barely a heartbeat blip every few minutes, which is a shame, because with a little more judicious editing, the positives could easily have outweighed the negatives. As it is, the longer it goes on, the more unshakable the feeling that the film, though undoubtedly smarter than we are, thinks we're so dumb we need the lesson to be repeated and repeated and repeated. [C+]