Peter Greenaway is an odd director. Never quite sure what he is going to do next, his films alternately bore me, freak me out, and enthrall me. I can never fully understand what I think of him even after watching his films several times. For example I have watched The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover several times, read countless articles about it, and thought about it but I still don’t know if I actually like it. The Pillow Book is going to be the same for me. I’m not sure how I feel about this film, but I will try to make sense of my confusion for you.
Basically the story is about a young troubled woman who has an obsession with calligraphy on her body. She can only get off by having someone write on her and that is the only way she measures a good lover. But when a young Englishman crosses her path and he ends up being a horrible calligrapher but a terrific lover in every other sense, she finds her passion for writing and creating poetry on other people’s bodies. Mix in a villainous publisher that has underscored her whole life with setbacks and an odd obsession with flesh and art and you get only a part of this film. It feels more like a contemporary art installation at MOMA instead of an actual film, it is hard to grasp onto the characters and their motivations. The images often abstract usually lent nothing to the character development, but helped establish a mood that was aggressively sexual and deliciously sumptuous.
Greenaway is a master at manipulating an image. He plays with different types of camera (including a crude digital camera years before digital became a common practice in Hollywood) movements, light, recreating art works, and the actors’ bodies to create a world that is completely his own. For instance there is a scene where the young woman in her pretentious apartment (It screams I am a famous model who appreciates modern art very loudly) writes in her pillow book. She opens her coveted cabinet that is filled with calligraphy supplies and begins to write. As she writes the characters appear on the wall and fade away just as quickly. This is done not through after effects, but through projections and color distortions. It is like a slide show that again would be shown in an art exhibit. At first it seems to just be another decoration in her apartment, but the characters soon become a part of the mood as she furiously writes about sexual encounters. It is a beautiful image. Another example of Greenaway’s ability to manipulate an image is the montage of Ewan McGregor and Vivian Wu reacting famous Japanese works of sexual positions. You see the image of the original work and then you see them forming that position. The images morph into each other until you are not quite sure if you are watching Ewan and Vivian or you are seeing an ancient depiction of sex. Both of these examples serve as a good introduction to the many manipulations he will put you through if you decide to sit down and watch this film.
I think I like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover more than this film for one reason: the actors are able to hold up next to Greenaway’s many tricks. Vivian Wu and Ewan McGregor seem to be lost in the collage that is this film. They melt anytime they are called to be both aloof and emotionally present. They can pull off the physical demands with the grace of an athlete, but when it comes to something as simple as saying “I love you” I don’t believe it at all. It might have been that Greenaway was too distracted by Vivian’s evident beauty and the things going on around her to notice that she needed more direction, or maybe he gave her too much direction but what ever the case she just sort of lies there and takes it without having any of the magnetism as Helen Mirren had in The Cook, The Theif, His Wife and Her Lover.
This film was an interesting experiment that I will definitely go back to again at a different time in my life. Maybe I will find something that I can really latch when I am older and wiser. Until then I only recommend this film to anyone who loves to watch emotionally stilted art experiments.