Feature by Stephen Applebaum

A day into the 56th Cannes Film Festival, producer Joel Silver pompously claimed that critics who responded unenthusiastically to The Matrix Reloaded were reacting to the shock of the new. This was so much hot air, of course. The real problem was that the much-hyped film was simply The Matrix Reheated. If you wanted to see what the future might really look like, you had to wait for the end of the festival, and Peter Greenaway’s extraordinary The Tulse Luper Suitcases.
The only film from a British director in contention for the Palme d’Or, Suitcases was, alongside Lars von Trier’s Dogville, also one of the strangest, most challenging and audacious works in the festival. That might not sound like much, given the mediocre quality of this year’s line-up. But believe me: this is a film unlike any other.

Greenaway, refreshingly, remains one of our few directors not making movies that pander to the American market. Nor has he ever buckled under the huge weight of criticism that films such as The Baby of Macon, which climaxed with a horrific multiple rape sequence that infuriated feminists, or The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, which featured a graphic act of cannibalism, have occasionally brought down upon his head. The man is not for turning, and in Cannes he was in fighting form.

"Everybody basically now makes Hollywood movies," he sniffs, when we meet in what amounts to an air-conditioned conservatory in one of Cannes’ trendiest new beach hang-outs, Studio 5. "That model is now so Oscar nominated and so Oscar focused, that it’s like an assembly line to an Oscar all the time. And it’s not just happening in California, it’s happening all over the world, which is extremely boring."

The same cannot be said about The Tulse Luper Suitcases. But before we congratulate ourselves for championing this unique piece of work, it is worth noting that the film was funded almost entirely with European money, with a little help from Greenaway’s native Wales. "I think to be appreciated in the UK, you have to die first," suggests his longtime producer, Dutchman Kees Kasander.

While Greenaway is still very much alive, it is cinema, the director believes, which is, in some senses, dead. "I don’t think there are any interesting film-makers left," he says provocatively. "I think all the interesting people have gone somewhere else. They’ve gone and become website masters, or they make videos, or they’re something like Bill Viola [who creates architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances]."

According to Greenaway, cinema died "as a radical exploratory medium" in the 1970s. "But we shouldn’t shed any tears," he insists. "Cinema is a local aesthetic technology and there have been many, many of these local aesthetic technologies in western culture, and all of them last about 100 years." Cinema, he believes, must now be re-invented in order to make it part of the interactive revolution, which, he is convinced, "began on 31 September, 1983: the official date when the remote control was introduced into the living rooms of the world." We are still looking for the "first genius of the new revolution. So humbly, humbly, humbly, humbly, humbly," he says with mock humility, "I offer you The Tulse Luper Suitcases."

There is nothing humble about either Greenaway or his bracingly ambitious Suitcases project. Subtitled The Moab Story, the film screened in Cannes is planned as the first part of a trilogy (Vaux to the Sea and From Sark to Finish have yet to be completed) charting the adventures of the director’s alter ego, Tulse Luper (played by JJ Feild, who looks like the love child of Franz Kafka and Jude Law), who spins stories and plans projects while imprisoned in locations around the world.

From the outset, Greenaway assaults the audience with a barrage of multi-layered images, superimposed text and overlapping soundtracks; windows open up to reveal faux historians giving slightly different commentaries on the events of Luper’s life, or, say, to display the contents of one of 92 suitcases supposed to have belonged to Luper. Self-reflexive references to Greenaway’s work appear throughout the film, while numerous elements in Luper’s life are clearly autobiographical.

Sometimes, different versions of the same piece of action will appear on screen simultaneously, alerting the audience to Greenaway’s belief that there is no such thing as objective truth and, therefore, no such thing as history. The slippage between fact and fiction is so dramatic that it is pointless trying to disentangle Greenaway’s and Luper’s lives.

If, as Greenaway contends, most films are merely "illustrations of 19th-century novels", in the sense that they are text based and the images are an afterthought, then it is ironic that Suitcases should remind one of nothing so much as Laurence Sterne’s proto-modernist 18th-century novel, Tristram Shandy. Where Sterne talked about "wheels within wheels" to describe the movement of his digressional, non-linear narrative, Greenaway talks in terms of "projects within projects". The novel was a definite reference point, he says, as was James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

"Joyce’s ambition was to gather together all the narrative tropes he could find, but then he had to change the language in order to put them all together. The great danger about Finnegans Wake is, it’s the greatest novel of the 20th century, but probably the most under-read. So you have to be careful because obviously cinema demands a public presence, otherwise it totally dies."

To be sure, Greenaway is expecting a lot from film-goers. However, he confidently believes that there is an audience for Suitcases, especially among computer literate 16 to 35-year-olds who are used to accessing the moving image via their laptops. In order to bridge the gap between the old and the new, in terms of audiences and technologies, The Tulse Luper Suitcases will not be confined just to the cinema. Ninety-two DVDs will be released, inspired by the contents of Luper’s suitcases (yes, 92), a website will expand on elements touched on in the film, books will be published, and a television series comprising some 16 40-minute programmes will be created.

This breathtakingly ambitious, crossmedia approach is, suggests Greenaway, the key to cinema’s survival. However, he is sceptical about whether it even deserves to have a future. The ability to watch films on high quality media in your own home, or to communicate with one another over the web, means that cinemas and film festivals are increasingly likely to become a thing of the past.

"I mean, look at the Cannes Film Festival: what an archaic, fascist institution is this," he sneers. "The world comes to you now; you don’t have to go to the world. If, as it regards itself, cinema is a sophisticated place where we can discourse the world, then it needs to accommodate these things. Our attempt, in this huge project called The Tulse Luper Suitcases, is a way to enter that discourse."

Suitcases is clearly an obsession for Greenaway. But although it has been in his mind ever since he started making films, the technology to make it a reality has only been available for a few years. If all goes to plan, the world of Tulse Luper will keep expanding for years to come.

But what if The Moab Story fails to find an audience? Will Greenaway’s plans to extend Suitcases beyond the cinema be shelved? The director does not think so.

At present, he says, they have enough information for three discs. He describes one of these as an investigation into the phenomenon of love letters, inspired by the billet-doux sent by Luper’s father to his mother at the time of the First World War. Although the DVD is still not finished, one does not doubt that it will be soon. However, Greenaway still is not sure how it will be distributed. All the letters will be published in manuscript form, so it might be slipped into the back of the book as a giveaway. On the other hand, they might become limited works of art you can only buy in the Museum of Modern Art.

"We need to explore and find out how to disseminate the information," enthuses Greenaway, "and that’s part, I think, of an exciting exercise."

So confident is he of success, that he intends to carry on working in this mode for his next project, 55 Men on Horseback, which will also be accompanied by a DVD. Time will tell if this really is the way forward, or merely an act of folly.