Director Peter Greenaway's films are an acquired taste -- quasi-surrealist fare at its most annoying or resplendent, depending on who you're talking to. His tendency to cram art history references, bewildering factoids and visual flourishes into practically every shot makes for an experience that qualifies as both a rush and a meditation. Multiple viewings are practically mandatory to "get" Drowning by Numbers, Prospero's Books or The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
But with The Pillow Book, Greenaway has his best shot at accessibility since The Cook. The new movie has a few things in common with that 1989 art-house hit: It's a satisfying revenge yarn, albeit less grotesque; it displays a sophisticated wit and literary appeal; and it has a healthy throughline of sex and nudity. But the movie is easily his most intimate and even uplifting work, for the simple reason that he set out to "celebrate and delight in the phenomena of sex and text."
Greenaway's springboard is a thousand-year-old book by Sei Shonagon, a Japanese lady in waiting of the Heian Dynasty imperial court. Shonagon's pillow book was a private diary of lists, memories and sexual adventures infused with wit and imagination. The film, a modern take on Shonagon's passion for literature and sensuality, uses the idea of calligraphy on skin to effect a kind of highbrow erotica. Vivian Wu plays Nagiko, a modern-day Japanese woman who discovers that her sexual identity stems from a childhood birthday ritual. Her father, a calligrapher and children's book writer, would paint a birthday greeting on her face while her aunt read her passages from Shonagon's pillow book. Nagiko grows up keeping her own diaries, but when her husband, the nephew of her father's publisher, burns them in a rage of intolerance, she leaves him and flees to Hong Kong.
As she struggles to become a published author, she finds herself seeking erotic satisfaction in a succession of calligraphers who write their texts on her body. When she meets an Englishman named Jerome (Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor), he suggests she use his body as a canvas, and the two fall in love. The film then becomes a lover's paradise of eccentricity and inky naughtiness, staged with a warmth and tactility that Greenaway has rarely explored before.
Tragedy strikes, though, when Nagiko sends a text-decorated Jerome to her father's old publisher, who becomes so enamored that he and Jerome become lovers too. Nagiko explodes with jealousy, but it is Jerome who cannot bear the pain of losing Nagiko, and he commits suicide. Nagiko then embarks on an elaborate revenge to undo the publisher and restore for herself a lasting, loving memory of Jerome.
As always, Greenaway explores the control and manipulation of data, numbers, words and ideas: There were the deceitful class games in his The Draughtsman's Contract; the culture war waged by Michael Gambon's vulgar husband in The Cook. Here, the 13 books Nagiko writes on the flesh of men are used as a tool of vengeance.
The film is Greenaway's friskiest accomplishment -- an achievement that has not a little to do with the boldness of the nudity and the carnal appeal of the conceit. For once, Greenaway is content to revel in the movie's beauty without feeling a need to make additional aesthetic "comments"; he has learned how to chill without being chilly.
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That's quite an accomplishment for the self-consciously arty director who created 92 fictional dossiers of disaster victims for his three-hour pseudo-documentary The Falls, who slyly featured the numbers one through 100 in sequential order throughout his 1988 film Drowning by Numbers and who color-coded the sets of The Cook.
But Greenaway is still Greenaway, and the richness of The Pillow Book is nonetheless enhanced by his stylistic noodling. Images -- be they Nagiko's childhood memories or a cubist-style perspective -- are layered effortlessly, like dream fragments in gift boxes. Repeated use of a hand-held camera and a modern Europop score make the vibe contemporary; and Greenaway even manages an effective allusion to the Easternness of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in the film's quieter, more ruminative moments. The director has abandoned the forced pageantry of his past films in favor of intimacy. For once, he has found an intellectual harmony between high art and the heart.
The Pillow Book.
Directed by Peter Greenaway. With Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata, Hideko Oshida and Judy Ongg.