Toward the end of Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, one of Rembrandt’s chief advocates stares at the masterpiece “The Nightwatch” and wonders what exactly he’s looking at. “Is it an epic or a satire,” he thinks aloud, pacing in circles around the painter as he deconstructs the work and takes his side. It’s a question for Rembrandt as much as it is for Greenaway, whose early works are like filmic mock-heroics, refined and sophisticated and precisely arranged movies about what can’t be refined away: the lust for flesh and for power; the vanity and arrogance of fighting to order a decaying world; and the weird destructive attraction to the drama of decay. Within flat sidelong compositions and precisely drawn, precisely framed symmetries, between painterly daubs of light and shadow, Greenaway’s characters barter their bodies and their talents, passing off their fetishes for affectations as they worm their way into society or fall way out of it. Though his work doesn’t attack contemporary mores in a directly satirical way, it has that subversive form and wit. In both his direction and his narratives Greenaway frames the low within the high.

The director finds within Rembrandt the rare hero he can sympathize with, an outsider happy to be there, amused with the oblique angles he’s reduced to and hiding like a sniper. Commissioned to paint the group portrait of a self-aggrandizing military brigade, the painter slowly realizes his subjects are a lot of criminals — murderers, rapists, pederasts and pimps who’ve “never fired a shot in anger,” but only for gain. Despicable to him to begin with, the mounting atrocities compel Rembrandt to expose his patrons. Instead of rows of faces, Rembrandt’s painting presents a conspicuous spectacle full of motion and noise, a drama of light and shadow. Guns fire, arms reach, bodies twist; dressed in white and dwarfish in proportions a young girl ducks for cover, her twisted face crying. Each gesture is a clue, the whole of it code, all the crimes secretly told in the painting. Gross though they are the patrons aren’t idiots. They praise the painting just enough so no one suspects scandal when it’s quickly taken down; secretly they take an oath to ruin the painter’s reputation and career.

When the painting is finally unveiled, Greenaway repeatedly cuts from his own compositions to Rembrandt’s, letting the painter’s work fill the frame and attack its edges. It’s here the critic questions his friend’s ambitions, in a lengthy speech that comments on and extends over both types of image, both filled with self-conscious actors self-consciously posed; staged wars of light and shadow; weird symbols whose meanings only the artists fully understand. In seamless transitions between the painted and living image Greenaway points the comments both ways. Though the question’s about satire it’s not Greenaway’s (or Rembrandt’s) ideas that hit you; it’s the strange sensual power of the images. Like Rembrandt, Greenaway seems to understand both darkness and light in a special way; he’s able to catch it and keep it in dark bowls of smoke that float in place, so they look more like watery reflections than light itself. The glow isn’t only for the sake of the satire. It’s for the sake of the shadows that would be mere darkness without it — it’s for the beauty of the image and for the pleasure of making that beauty. Even if you don’t like Greenaway’s message it’s hard to dismiss the exquisite, precise frames he crafts around it.

Given the incredibly limited distribution of his recent work it seems most critics and studios have indeed dismissed Greenaway. Don’t make their mistake. Much like the Rembrandt we see at the end of the movie, the quality of Greenaway’s work is all but unchanged; it’s the quality of taste that’s different. Though waking from nightmare and wrapped up in his lovers’ arms in the movie’s closing moments the painter is fully Greenaway’s, their obsessions completely shared; both turned on by a tongue on a wound and fascinated by miles and miles of painted darkness; both making art for no audience, but only for the pleasure.  

The strange sadness you feel should be for Greenaway.