8 1/2 Women

Friday May 26, 2000

     Peter Greenaway's "8 1/2 Women" is a nod to Fellini--and that "half" turns out to be a typically dark Greenaway twist. No artistic temperaments could be more different than those of Greenaway and Fellini. Greenaway is the detached, pitiless intellectual whose magistral experimental flourishes can be recondite in the extreme, whereas Fellini is the lyrical, compassionate sensualist who celebrates the beauty of the women in his all-encompassing embrace.
     Even the most stunning woman will have her pores revealed in close-up by Greenaway, for whom lust seems invariably dry as dust. (You have to wonder what Greenaway and fellow Brit, painter Lucian Freud, with their common preoccupation with less than perfect flesh, think about each other's work.)
     Yet this film, one of Greenaway's most amusing and accessible, actually arrives at moments of tenderness, even love, fleeting though they may be. "8 1/2 Women" finds Greenaway in a contemplative mood, musing about the interplay of sex and love and mortality, and the bonds between father and son--within the context of mordant absurdist humor, to be sure. It's not that Greenaway has gone soft and sentimental but rather that he's dared to allow a rare drop of humanity to emerge in his characters' relationships with one another.
     In jaunty, elliptical fashion Greenaway introduces Philip Emmenthal (John Standing), a Geneva-based financier and banker, in the midst of driving so hard a bargain in acquiring a Kyoto pachinko parlor for his business associate and architect son Storey (Matthew Delamere) that he gets his nose bloodied.
     Not long after Storey agrees to accept as a payment of indebtedness the sexual favors of pretty, fiery Simato (Shizuka Inoh), as urged by her father--and her fiance--he has to return to Geneva when his mother dies. Philip is bereft, overcome with the loss of his wife, more a companion than a lover, and Storey suggests that to cheer himself up his father turn his immense period palace into a virtual harem. From Japan (depicted here as constantly rattled by earthquakes) Storey brings Simato; the exquisite Mio (Kirina Mano), whose goal is to be more female than the Kabuki's female impersonators; and his father's relentlessly efficient representative Kito (Vivian Wu).
     Additions to the harem present themselves rapidly. Toni Collette's Griselda satisfies Philip's fantasies involving naked nuns only to discover she might really like to be a nun and even start her own order. Amanda Plummer's highly theatrical Beryl has a passion for horses and horse-riding and for her immense pig Hortense, and lands in one of Philip's many guest suites to recuperate from an injury.
     Within an increasingly rich and diverse assortment of fine ladies, the most captivating is Polly Walker's Palmira, a sophisticated adventuress who failed to lasso Philip some three years earlier and is taking a leave of absence from her ardent affair with an opera singer (Don Warrington) to snare him this time.
     To be sure, Philip's harem-building is not without pitfalls, virtually all of them funny. These women are not in Philip's thrall; rather it is he who is in theirs. If there is a moral to the film--and there may be many--it is that in amour, women are always the winners, and that men toy with them at their peril.
     "8 1/2 Women" has the superb production design and glorious cinematography (by the veteran Sacha Vierny) typical of Greenaway works, plus a raft of scintillating portrayals. Standing has lent staunch support in many a film, and it is a pleasure to find him in the central role as a man of formidable savoir-faire.
     Philip and Storey are wits rarely at a loss for words--even at the movies watching "8 1/2" or at the opera for a performance of "La Giaconda." They're engaging, if astringent, personalities, but you wouldn't want to sit behind them in a theater.

8 1/2 Women, 2000. R, for strong sexual content, including language and pervasive nudity. A Lions Gate Films presentation. Writer-director Peter Greenaway. Producer Kees Kasander. Executive producers Terry Glinwood, Bob Hubar, Denis Wigman. Cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Editor Elmer Leupen. Production designer Wilbert van Dorp. Costume and production designer (Japan) Emi Wada. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. John Standing as Philip Emmenthal. Matthew Delamere as Storey Emmenthal. Polly Walker as Palmira. Vivian Wu as Kito.

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