Art History at the Movies: Nightwatching

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Thanks to Netflix Instant, I watched several movies about the lives of various artists for a week.

Furthermore, movies about artists often give directors, screenwriters, and other crew members an excuse to use strange camerawork and be as visual as possible.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not.  On that, the first film for this series goes by the name of…


IMDB Profile

This movie is about Rembrandt Van Rign (Played by Martin Freeman) and his painting Night Watch, also known as the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch.

The Night Watch

The movie itself tells the stories of the members of the Militia and Rembrandt’s interaction with them.  It also recounts the consequences after the painting’s creation.  The plot goes that Banning (the leader) wanted Rembrandt to paint his militia’s group portrait.  Rembrandt interacts with each member, and they all show their shady and ugly sides to the artist.  Peter Greenaway, the film’s director, shows cleverness in that he does not show Rembrandt working on Nightwatch and he does not show it until the end of the story.  When the militia sees the painting, they hate the portrait.  They accuse Rembrandt of depicting them as idiots and not really soldiers.  Furthermore, they spend the rest of the film making Rembrandt’s life a living Hell.

During the making of Nightwatch, the movie also focuses on the relationship between Rembrandt and his wife Saskia.  The movie does depict their relationship as a loving relationship, even though it characterizes Rembrandt as constantly wanting to have sex.  However, Saskia is bedridden throughout the movie until her death.  While she lays sick, Rembrandt encounters women who act as female archetypes.  The movie does not tell us whether the women are real or figments of Rembrandt’s imagination.  When she does die, Rembrandt falls into a deep sorrow, and the scene where he mourns ends will leave you moved.  He does take up another relationship with a woman named Geerter, who watches over his child.  However, that relationship falls apart quickly.

Visually, Greenaway creates a chiaroscuro like atmosphere which leads to the movie resembling a filmed play than a movie.  In fact, the end of the movie calls Night Watch a “frozen moment of theater.”  The motifs of theater, trickery, and the militia as not being real soldiers shows throughout the film.  That makes sense because Rembrandt himself in the Dutch Baroque era.  Baroque paintings themselves constantly use dramatic lighting and black backgrounds.  Also, throughout the movie, we watch countless long table scenes that divide up the screen.  Furthermore, they show crowds of people in lines, as if foretelling the Night Watch painting.  Also  Greenaways’ camerawork constantly stays in one place, turning the film into a living portrait.  People sit and stand like they knew they were posing for a portrait.  Also, every scene has this feeling of order and symmetry.  An interesting execution since Baroque art has a reputation for chaos.

Does it make for a good movie?  Well, yes and no.  The movie itself asks you to contemplate the scenes while you watch.  And you can tell that Greenaway had that in mind when he filmed this.  However, if you do not know this, you probably will not like this film at all.  However, it does have a slow, but not boring pace.  Regarding Greenaway himself, this is the second movie I have seen directed by him.  The first came from The Pillow Book.  While that movie’s plot was nonexistent, it was pretty to look at.  I also loved the music (own the soundtrack).  The actors all did a good job in the movie, although I thought Martin Freeman, the actor playing Rembrandt did not really look like the artist.

Is it correct?  It does perpetuate the idea that post Night Watch, the painting did not receive a lot of praise and Rembrandt went on a downward spiral, but others do not agree.  The link reveals that people may have exaggerated the story.  So, you will not like this movie since it perpetuates the story of Rembrandt’s downfall.

During my personal art history film festival, I noticed various tropes that pop up from these films.

Tropes used

Artist at Work Rembrandt

Artist with an established reputation The movie’s plot already has Rembrandt as a celebrated artist.

Art Reenactments  Movies about the lives of artists often reenact scenes and poses found in their body of work.  In this movie, they have a huge scene with Rembrandt with one of his Crucifixion paintings and a real scene of someone getting crucified (not for real, of course).

What is real?  This trope comes from dialogue between artists and other characters about what reality the artist captures when creating art.  This happens when Rembrandt creates portraits.

Ironic Future Prediction People tell Rembrandt that Night Watch will be forgotten forever.

ETA: I was informed of some errors, so I rewrote some sentences.

ETA: I added a link, and I reorganized some sentences.

ETA 12-30-2014:  Removed the “Nudity” trope.  Didn’t like it.

ETA 9-24-16:  rewrote a sentence.


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