The Pillow Book
Screenplay : Peter Greenaway
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1995
Stars : Vivian Wu (Nagiko Kiohara), Yoshi Oida (The Publisher), Ken Ogata (The Father), Hideko Yoshida (The Aunt), Ewan McGregor (Jerome), Judy Ongg (The Mother), Ken Mitsuishi (The Husband), Yutaka Honda (Hoki), Barbara Lott (Jerome's Mother)
Those who are already die-hard fans of British filmmaker Peter Greenaway may find cause for celebration in his newest film, "The Pillow Book." Those who hate his work will find more reason to despise him and call him pretentious and banal. And those who have never been exposed to his work will probably just be confused.
Like all Greenaway's films, "The Pillow Book" is nothing if not a visual marvel, more a painting in motion than a movie. Defenders of Greenaway will claim that it's his imagery, not his storytelling that's important. That must surely be the case, because Greenaway's ability to tell a clear story is muddled at best, atrocious at worst, usually because his aethetics constantly get in the way. He is completely uninterested in people, evidenced by the fact that almost all of the characters have no names. His aim is not to follow a plot, but to create a mood. Unfortunately, "The Pillow Book" has no real mood because it's so heavy with intellect; the eroticism is drowned out by all the cerebral posturing.
Strictly speaking, "The Pillow Book" is about Nagiko Kiohara (Vivian Wu), a resident of modern Japan. When she was a child, her father (Ken Ogata), a master calligrapher, would paint exotic messages on her face while her aunt (Hideko Yoshida) read passages to her from "The Pillow Book," an almost-thousand-year-old diary of thoughts, manners, and erotic ecounters by another woman called Nagiko.
This father/daughter ritual ends when Nagiko is eighteen, but it doesn't stop her desire to be painted on. Her father's yearly birthday present becomes an erotic manifestation which her boring and uninterested husband (Ken Mitsuishi ) cannot fulfill. Therefore, Nagiko spends the rest of the movie searching for a man who can paint on her body and excite her. Plotwise, it is nothing more than an entry in the "Emmanuelle" film series with a fresh coat of varnish.
Dozens of would-be writers later, Nagiko meets Jerome (Ewan McGregor), a British translator who introduces her to the notion of allowing her to paint on him. This is a new variation on her paint and brush fetish, and she immediately falls for him. Jerome, however, is also the lover of her father's homosexual publisher (Yoshi Oida), who she feels betrayed her father. The movie then turns to one of Greenaway's favorite themes: elaborate and sadistic revenge schemes.
To understand "The Pillow Book," you not only have to have an understanding of Greenaway as an artist, but you also have to know a great deal about art, numerology, history, and the essence and intricacies of Japanese calligraphy. Greenaway has become known as a filmmaker who demands a great deal from his audience, and more times than not, this demand only alienates him from most viewers. Some might deem this as a good thing -- the ultimate in exclusionary, aesthetic art working as the true antithesis of the trivialities accompanying the pop art movement. Not all art is for all people, and Greenaway's art is for such a select group that it's a miracle his films ever find distrubution.
Of course, there's the nudity factor, which is always an issue in Greenaway's films. I suspect that frontal nudity is one of Greenaway's methods of forcing his actors to commit completely to the work of art. "The Pillow Book" contains a great deal more male nudity than female nudity, much of it of Ewan McGregor. In the end, you get so used to copious amounts of bare flesh that it loses any of its erotic qualities. The first few times you see the paintbrush caressing skin, it's uniquely exciting; by the end, it has been made dull, which seems odd for an erotic film.
"The Pillow Book," unlike earlier Greenaway efforts such as "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover," is almost unapproacheable. While "The Cook" was both artistic, multi-layered, and (emphasis here) entertaining, "The Pillow Book" is such a dense, deeply textured film that is ultimately off-putting by its very essence. "The Cook" was teeming with life and vitality; "The Pillow Book" feels dead. Half the time it's confusing and pompous, and the rest of the time it comes off as simply silly. It's also desperately long, finally arriving at a drawn-out conclusion with Nagiko painting thirteen "books" on thirteen different men as part of her revenge scheme. By the time the fifth or sixth "book" is being presented to the Publisher, most interest has been lost in the calvacade of imagery.
Greenaway is so enthralled with his imagery (he used to be a painter) that one screen is not enough for him to work with. He films in several different aspect ratios, and often layers up to five different screens on top of the main screen. He also includes scrolling texts in English, French, and Japanese, and superimposes works of art and lists of Japanese letters. What it all amounts to is too much; one screen of Greenaway imagery is about as much as the eye can handle, and trying to watch four or five at the same time -- especially when they contain pertinent information -- is truly maddening. At times, the screen looks more like a CD-ROM on Japanese art history that a motion picture.
Greenaway once again worked with long-time cinematographer Sacha Vierny, and most of the resulting photography is stupendous. Some of the individual imagery is outstanding, and a VCR is almost better than the movie theater, because at least you can pause the film and dwell on its beauty instead of being lost in its story.
©1997 James Kendrick