Greenaway’s ‘Pillow Book’ Is Another Exercise in Style
Despite its arresting visual style, its wave after wave of creative and hypnotic images, “The Pillow Book,” as its name hints, slowly but inexorably leads to sleep.
Written and directed by Peter Greenaway, “The Pillow Book” is more coherent and plotted than his last film, the understandably little seen “The Baby of Macon.” But it shares with that and earlier works like “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” and “Prospero’s Books” both an air of smug pretension and a cold and gleeful delight in the poetry of excess.
There can be no doubt that Greenaway, working as usual with veteran cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who shot both “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad” for Alain Resnais), is an exceptional visual stylist with an aesthetic that prides itself on being self-consciously artistic.
But “Pillow Book” demonstrates, as do the others, the limits of style as a filmmaking be-all and end-all. A director who communicates sparingly with his actors if at all, Greenaway doesn’t notice or care about the dramatic weakness of his films. If they look spectacular, as they inevitably do, that is enough for him.
In this, Greenaway can be seen as the art-house equivalent of blockbuster-oriented French director Luc Besson, whose “The Fifth Element,” the most expensive film ever made in Europe, is similarly contemptuous of all but the flimsiest forms of emotional connection. For these directors and the audience they appeal to, surface sensation is all that matters.
Told in both Japanese and English, “The Pillow Book” explores the life of Nagiko, introduced as a child in Kyoto whose master calligrapher father (Ken Ogata) paints a greeting on her face every year on her birthday.
On the same day her aunt reads to her from one of the classics of Japanese literature, “The Pillow Book,” a 10th century journal and collection of lists written by Sei Shonagon. One of the pleasures of this “Pillow Book” is the beautiful way Greenaway and Vierny illustrate the book’s “List of Splendid Things,” displaying a large garden covered in snow or indigo-colored flowers.
As she grows into a beautiful young woman, Nagiko (Vivian Wu of “The Last Emperor” and “The Joy Luck Club”) becomes increasingly obsessed with having herself written on, even taking calligraphic prowess into account when considering potential lovers.
Nagiko also feels haunted by a sense of unfinished business with her father’s publisher (Yoshi Oida), a predatory homosexual who has had a murky relationship with her parent that has always discomfited her.
Moving to Hong Kong, Nagiko meets a dilettantish English translator named Jerome (“Trainspotting’s” Ewan McGregor) who, to compensate for his poor calligraphy, offers his body for her to write on. This reversal doesn’t end well, but Nagiko embraces the general idea, and before the movie is finished, she carefully inscribes 11 different books on the skins of a series of full frontally nude young men.
All this is illustrated in the most lavish style possible, with images overlapping and blending into one another. The screen is split any number of times and any number of ways, including a black strip left along the bottom to accommodate elegantly written subtitles. Stately and hypnotic, “The Pillow Book” is best appreciated as a series of visuals slowly washing over the mind.
But minds tend to be pesky things, demanding more than visual pleasures, and “The Pillow Book,” with mechanical, undirected line readings adding to its problems, is much too icy to play half as interesting as it may sound. For all his skill, Greenaway wants to be no more than a puppet master, and puppets, though beautiful, have limitations of their own.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: odd material and extensive female and full frontal male nudity.
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‘The Pillow Book’
Vivian Wu: Nagiko
Yoshi Oida: The Publisher
Ken Ogata: The Father
Hideko Yoshida: The Aunt and The Maid
Ewan McGregor: Jerome
A Kasander & Wigman Productions IBV/Alpha Films production, released by Cinepix Film Properties. Director Peter Greenaway. Producer Kees Kasander. Executive producers Terry Glinwood, Jean Louis Piel, Denis Wigman. Screenplay Peter Greenaway. Cinematographer Sacha Vierny. Editors Chris Wyatt & Peter Greenaway. Costumes Dien van Straalen, Koji Tatsuno, Martin Margiela. Production design Wilbert van Dorp, Andree Putnam. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.
* In limited release. Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.
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