At the request of a rich prince, Julia Ormond takes part in a sacrilegious play, where a virgin acts on her crush on a local priest, who consequently dies in a scene reminiscent of the first nativity. During the play the boundaries between reality and fiction blur with virgin being viciously gang raped.
Greenaway's latest is a nasty, weeping sore of a film, oozing as it is with all the director's usual obsessions, from bodily functions to death and decay, and all steeped in his favourite hues of bloody crimson. This time out, the subject is child abuse and exploitation, the period circa 1650, and the matters up for debate prurience and voyeurism, religious ideals and hypocrisy. In fact, Greenaway picks apart the official and personal exploitation of a child with such an apparent pleasure that you could only describe it as deeply perverse.
The film unfolds as a three-act play in a provincial theatre where the story of a virgin (Ormond) who seeks to exploit the miraculous possibilities of a baby she claims to be her own is performed in front of the aristocratic but naive Cosimo (Lacey) and his entourage of fawning courtiers. Ormond not only contrives to turn herself and her "son" into the living incarnation of the Blessed Mother and Child but also, with the Church in a jealous frenzy, sets about the seduction of a pretty priest (Fiennes). Prior to the deflowering, however, Ormond's miracle-working baby has the unfortunate Fiennes killed in a stable scene reminiscent of the Nativity gone horribly wrong, and the Church takes the opportunity to appropriate the child for its own purposes. Before the Church can fully exploit her baby, though, Ormond kills him and in one of Greenaway's more objectionable scenes to date is herself condemned to an horrific multiple rape as punishment.
Most ghastly of all, in a film in which the director's manipulations and deceptions confusingly render his reality interchangeable with his theatre, Ormond as the actress suffers the same fate as her stage character. When the locals hack her baby into relic-sized pieces and the curtain comes down on the whole grisly mess, it is clear that the corpses left on stage will not be coming back for an encore.
This is cruel, intoxicating, offensive stuff but so handsomely dressed by production designers Ben Van Os and Jan Roelfs it could almost be seductive which, of course, is the very point the director intends to make. But so contrived is his plot, and so depraved his ideas, that it is difficult to see this supposed examination of the nature of image and exploitation as anything more than a rather beautifully crafted splatter movie with intellectual pretensions.
As with most of Greenaway's films, he pushes the boundaries of taste, often favouring shocking visuals over a strong narrative. In perhaps one of his most exaggerated films, we see rape, murder, sex, blasphemy and after the onslaught you wonder if it was worth the ordeal.