[Written for The Stranger]
All of Peter Greenaway’s films depend less on human emotion than they do on a particularly fierce adherence to preordained patterns. Because of this insistence, they are curiously immune to criticism. Call them callous, misanthropic, inhuman (all of which they certainly are), whatever you like; for the Greenaway fan, such objections have simply missed the point. Depending on your belief — is art about people, or simply a way of ordering an incoherent universe? — he is either a fraud or one of the greatest filmmakers currently working. 8 1/2 Women, his latest film, is no exception. For his fans, it may well be the finest thing he’s done; the rest of us will find it as grotesque and unwatchable as the rest of the director’s output.
Greenaway focuses this time on the war between the sexes. Heretofore merely a constant, unpleasant fascination of the director’s, the subject of late (Pillow Book, anyone?) has become a full-blown obsession. Initially scattershot, 8 1/2 Women eventually settles down on this conflict, whereupon the topic gets debated (nothing is ever acted out in a Greenaway film, only talked about ad infinitum) through the medium of a father and son who gather a harem about them. Just following the death of his wife, wealthy banker Philip Emmanthal (John Standing) calls his only child Storey (Matthew Delamere) to his side when he goes abroad on business. Kyoto, Japan, has been good to Storey, but he rushes home nonetheless to find Dad distraught and Mom rigid on the marital bed. Lost without the steady if sexually frigid companionship his wife offered, Philip is on the verge of suicide, until his son comes home to offer solace. Moping about their luxurious Swiss estate only depresses Philip more, until a screening of Fellini’s 8 1/2 gives the pair an idea. Now they set out on a mission: to gather about them a stable of women as fantastical and sexually pliant as those populating the Italian director’s imagination. One by one, the father and son entice into the fold a Japanese pachinko addict (Shizuka Inoh), an Italian baby factory (Natacha Amal), a Norwegian cashier/aspiring nun (Toni Collette), an Eastern European in love with a pig (Amanda Plummer), and so forth, up until Fellini’s magic number (the fraction provided by a retarded, legless woman who is barely glimpsed in the film).
Paid for their services, each of the eponymous women start off as a patriarchal victim, plain and simple, but before too long each has managed to turn the table on her employers and get what she wanted all along from the arrangement. Queen bee of the hive is Palmira (Polly Walker), with whom the elder Emmanthal is foolish enough to fall in love. Relying on sentiment is as useless as always in a Greenaway film (early on, Philip defends marriage as an institution with the advice that his son “get someone else to kiss your cock”). Seeing people as merely models waiting to be posed, characters as nothing more than realizations of abstract concepts, and humanity as beasts by any other name, the director is as cold-hearted as always.
There are signs of life here and there amid the typically elegant but lifeless compositions Greenaway—trained, it must always be remembered, as a painter—and his usual cinematographer, the talented Sacha Vierny, have fashioned. Unlike earlier efforts, the humor in this film is actually intentional. Vulgar to be sure (even a bit of father-son incest seems played for laughs), but a change for the better from the stifling seriousness of previous Greenaway films. When a series of rapid dissolves fill us in on a year’s worth of headaches caused by living with nearly nine concubines, or when a Mondrian painting (as chilly and abstract as the film it’s in) is described as “rigid, tedious, boring,” it seems anything is up for grabs, and that Greenaway’s ruthlessly surgical eye could be a satirist’s after all. X-raying human behavior until it becomes no more involving than plots on a graph, however, remains the director’s method of operation, and his endless lists and catalogs remain pointless to me. You don’t have to take my word for it; as I said at the beginning, there are plenty of people who admire Greenaway, and they’re welcome to him. Zealous in his pursuit of overriding patterns, however, the director forgets that patterns in themselves are meaningless, and can be exploited by even the most mediocre artists — or critics, for that matter.