Drowning by Numbers  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Drowning by Numbers is a 1988 British film directed by Peter Greenaway. It won the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.



The film's plot centers on three women — a grandmother, her daughter and her niece — each named Cissie Colpitts. As the story progresses each woman successively drowns her husband. The three Cissie Colpitts are played by Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson, and Joely Richardson. Bernard Hill plays the coroner Madgett, who is cajoled into covering up the three crimes.

The structure, with similar stories repeated three times, is reminiscent of a fairy tale, more specifically the Billy Goats Gruff, since Madgett is constantly promised greater rewards as he tries his luck with each of the Cissies in turn. The link to folklore is further established by Madgett's son Smut, who recites the rules of various unusual games played by the characters as if they were ancient traditions. Many of these games are invented for the film, including:

Number-counting, game rules and the plot's repetitions are devices that emphasize structure and symmetry in Drowning by Numbers. Through the course of the film the numbers 1 to 100 appear in order, sometimes seen in the background, sometimes spoken by the characters.

The film is set in and around Southwold, Suffolk, England, with key landmarks such as the Victorian water tower, Southwold Lighthouse and the River Blyth estuary clearly identifiable.



The musical score is by Michael Nyman, and is, at Greenaway's specific request, entirely based on themes taken from the slow movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, K364, bars 58-61 of which are heard in their original form immediately after each drowning. Nyman was alerted to the potential of this piece by Greenaway in the late 1970s and had previously used it as material for part of the score for Greenaway's The Falls and for "The Masterwork" Award Winning Fish-Knife and Tristram Shandy. "Trysting Fields" is the most complicated use of the material: every appoggiatura from the movement, and no other material from the piece, is used.

The album is the tenth by Nyman, and the seventh to feature the Michael Nyman Band.

Track listing

  1. "Trysting Fields"
  2. "Sheep and Tides"
  3. "Great Death Game"
  4. "Drowning by Number 3"
  5. "Wheelbarrow Walk"
  6. "Dead Man's Catch"
  7. "Drowning by Number 2"
  8. "Bees in Trees"
  9. "Fish Beach"
  10. "Wedding Tango"
  11. "Crematorium Conspiracy"
  12. "Knowing the Ropes"
  13. "Endgame"

The back cover of the album booklet has a large number 58. Fred Ritzel has pointed out that the Skipping Girl (Natalie Morse) reaches number 58 in her counting game. These are subtle ways of drawing attention to the key bar of the Mozart piece.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Drowning by Numbers" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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