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'Pillow Book:' inscrutable eroticism

June 21, 1997
Web posted at: 12:27 p.m. EDT (1627 GMT)
Pillow Book scene

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- "His remarkable talent was that he could leave his audience with the feeling that if they hadn't fully grasped the complications, it was their fault. Whatever one didn't understand, one gave Bergman credit for." That's Roman Polanski writing, somewhat sardonically, about that giant of the obscure, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The same criticism can be applied to Welshman Peter Greenaway, whose new film of erotic obsession, "The Pillow Book," is gorgeous but almost haughtily impenetrable.

This comes as no surprise to me. With a couple of exceptions, Greenaway's work has always been obscure in the extreme. Things have only gotten worse in recent years, with "Drowning by Numbers" and "Prospero's Books" wallowing in a busy, essay-like style of filmmaking that suggests a carefully posed version of some of Jean-Luc Godard's wackier mid-60s offerings ("Masculine-Feminine" comes to mind). At the very least, though, Godard always has the saving grace of a sense of humor, something that Greenaway seems wholly incapable of exhibiting.


Eroticism has always been the great equalizer of modern filmmaking, a six-shooter that levels the playing field regardless of the director's talents. Sexual obsession is by its very nature a highly personal subject matter, so if the kink is far enough out there, the director pretty much gets free rein to wander around as much as he likes. No matter how high-falutin' the movie, the audience is simply reduced to ogling.

America, in particular, is a country composed of oglers, so when this type of artfully crafted silliness makes its way across the ocean, there's always a massive, pipe-smoking-and-pondering audience set to lap it up. It's happened time and again; everything from "Emmanuelle" to "In the Realm of the Senses" to "Last Tango in Paris" has immediately been met with a ridiculous amount of over-praise from critics and audiences alike. It should not have to be pointed out, though, that having the guts to make an overtly erotic "big" movie is not the same thing as making a "good" movie, "The Pillow Book" being a readily available case in point.

A lot of people have been applauding "The Pillow Book" for being unfathomable, but not nearly as unfathomable as some of Greenaway's other films, which sounds to me like a textbook case of people not wanting to look stupid in front of their friends. I, on the other hand, have no problem admitting my own stupidity (a definition of which I'll be getting around to). Aside from the idea that the main character (a model/writer played by Vivian Wu) is obsessed with having calligraphy painted on her beautiful, naked body, I couldn't begin to tell you what Greenaway is getting at with "The Pillow Book." (For the record, "Trainspotting's" Ewan McGregor is also on hand and also very naked.)

woman from movie

Greenaway has been experimenting in his last couple of films with screens within the screen, small rectangular viewing areas that periodically pop up in the corner (or the middle) of the scene that's playing out. This happens throughout "The Pillow Book," with images of models prancing down the runway, flowers opening, duck eggs just sitting there, kids eating strawberries, and cloth draping, unexpectedly superimposing themselves in the middle of dialogue sequences. This is explained by the fact that Wu's character keeps a diary based on a 1,000-year old journal by a Japanese writer named Sei Shonagon.

Shonagon's entries, which make her sound like a self-consciously elegant Upper West Sider, are often recited, envisioned, or literally spelled out with subtitles that appear all over the screen. As beautiful as it all is (it's exquisitely composed by cinematographer Sacha Viemy) the end result starts to feel like an art film shot by the guys at Epcot. The proper pose here in Manhattan is to put your fingers against your chin and go "hmmmmmm" while you watch it. I was closer to putting my head against the back of the chair and going, "Zzzzzzz."

As for my definition of "stupidity." Filmmakers like Bergman and Greenaway are (more times than not) conveniently protected by the cloak of obscurity. If you ask me, endless references so vague that they can't be fully grasped by anyone but the director are of little value outside of self-satisfied posturing. I suspect a lot of people are afraid to admit when they don't go for something like "The Pillow Book" for fear of looking like a Philistine. My response to that is that I could sit down with Peter Greenaway right now and start spouting out little-known doo-wop lyrics from the 1950s, or the history of the Cleveland Indians, and he probably wouldn't have the slightest idea what I was talking about. That makes me an artist. Now scratch your chin and go "hmmmmmm."

"The Pillow Book" is obsessed with obsessive erotic obsessiveness. If you've ever trembled at the thought of having Japanese characters painted on your nude body, this is the film for you. Bring a lunch; it feels like it'll never end. Not Rated. 126 minutes.


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