You should really see Drowning By Numbers. I can't pretend it isn't weird, and it's bleakly pessimistic, but it's also such a fascinating mental puzzle of a film, full of interlocking curiousities and remarkable characters. It has the stamp of British humor upon it -- the witticisms that simply slip past, the exchanges of understated mockery and absurdity -- but its real appeal is thoroughly universal.
The film revolves around three women, all named Sissy, who undertake the murders of their respective husbands. They have an unsettling sense of solidarity, and though they seem motivated by sexual frustration at first, it eventually starts to seem like they commit murder simply because they were tired of not committing murder. During this cynical and subversive process, they manipulate the local coroner into covering up their evidence. The story is the coroner's, as much as the womens'... he is a goofy and susceptible man who spends most of the film explaining the rules of strange, folkish games he has invented, and taking care of his son Smut, who has a similar fascination with games, but whose preoccupation is noticably more morbid. The film is a cracked unity, a fragmented braid of woven themes.
Does this sound like Wes Anderson? Not really. Murder and morbidity aren't themes central to his work, and his plots don't have the complex opacity of Drowning By Numbers. However, if you go and watch Drowning By Numbers right now, you'll sense the influence it's had on Anderson. I'll go ahead and try to articulate this influence, real quick like.
The camerawork and composition of shots in Greenaway's film are a direct precursor to Anderson's unconventional style. Greenaway likes long takes and a stable camera; any motion is usually slow pans, following a character's movement through a landscape. His frames are decidedly distant and minimally expressive, with a range of medium and occasional long shots, but few close-ups. The effect of his compositions is often to flatten the background and present the action in another flat plane in front of it, and he'll remain in this position and let a series of events or a conversation unfold in front of the lens. Like Anderson, Greenaway favors symmetry in his frames, and strong foreground/background gestalt. There's another shot of Greenaway's that Anderson shares: the unadorned, straight-on shot of a face showing understated signs of emotion (a single tear, a twitch of the cheek).
I've included a bunch of frames to compare the two styles. They're a pretty good illustration of the similarities I'm talking about... you can find them at the bottom of the post.
Add to this a penchant for quirky characters whose quirks are represented simply as the texture of everyday life... and a portrayal of family relationships that suggest underlying affection, even though they're caught up in a world of awkwardness and disconnection... and you start to see why these two filmmakers are so similar.
Interestingly enough, although Greenaway is less recognized than Wes Indie-darling Anderson, Drowning By Numbers could actually be seen as more marketable than something like Life Aquatic. It's certainly a strange movie, but it doesn't have Anderson's ironic tendencies (intentionally bad special effects on the fish, high-intensity spy music during a comically awkward rescue scene). Drowning By Numbers may have been a weird aesthetic and experimental exercise, but it felt dramatized, and the characters and plot were certainly engaging.
Greenaway's work is both more symbolically complex (the counting, the stars, things happening in three's, etc) and more dramatically conventional (it's an honest crime drama, at least) than Anderson's. As postmodern cinephiles looking back at Greenaway, we can see how he developed his experiment, and how Wes Anderson took that detached aesthetic and made it evolve. In a sense, Anderson's movies are a purification of Greenaway's aesthetic banal -- it's the same tone, but Anderson's movies don't have all the opacity and symbolism to get in the way. His stories are purely about the characters, and the plots and dialogue all fit into the quirky, banal, humanistic aesthetic, which he brings into a unity.
So in that sense, seeing Greenaway's work has given me a new appreciation for Wes Anderson's. I hope some of you Anderson fans out there will try to rent Drowning By Numbers. See if you see the influence as clearly as I did.
Frame comparisons, with Drowning By Numbers on top and The Royal Tenenbaums on the bottom:
Faces at despairing moments
Preoccupation with symmetry
Horizontal movement on a flattened background
Slow pan, following characters in conversation
Fixation on a significant gesture