"I will make you a list of exquisite things," begins
the 10th century text from which The Pillow Book derives
its name. Shaved ice in a silver bowl, indigo silk and children
eating strawberries are a few of the things it lists. You may
safely count Peter Greenaway's new film among those items.
The Pillow Book tells the story of a young Japanese Girl
named Nagiko (Vivian Wu) whose father is a struggling writer.
Every year on her birthday, Nagiko's father celebrates the occasion
by painting his daughter's face and reciting an ancient oriental
blessing: "When God made the first human from a lump of clay
he painted in the eyes, the lips, the sex. When God was done,
he brought his creation to life by signing his name." This
intermingling of word and flesh becomes the primary basis for
oddball British filmmaker Peter Greenaway's erotic rumination.
In the world of Greenaway (who brought us such kooky highbrow
sex as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and
Prospero's Books), no kink is too kinky. Therefore, as
an adult, Nagiko has developed a fetish for calligraphers. Her
greatest ambition is to find a man who is the perfect lover and
the perfect calligrapher. Nagiko's only erotic charge comes from
having men write all over her body--a process which Greenaway
shows in exquisite, loving closeups. Hey, to each his own.
After a failed marriage, a number of unsatisfying trysts and a
move to Hong Kong, Nagiko runs into a bisexual British translator
named Jerome (the omnipresent Ewan McGregor). Initially, Nagiko
rejects the learned stud because his "ugly scribblings"
in English and French are far from the intricate, architectural
characters of the Chinese alphabet. In the end, though, Jerome
wins her over when he offers to put a new kink in her garden hose.
"Write on me," he offers. "Use me like the page
of a book." Nagiko jumps at the offer and is soon producing
reams of work on her lover's body. Obviously drawn to the written
word like her father before her, Nagiko sets out to become an
author. Together with her new lover, she stumbles across a brilliant
plan. In order to win over a publisher for her work, she will
send each chapter of a novel painted on a person's body.
Greenaway has found a lush topic for his exotic sensibilities.
The Pillow Book is an exquisite work of art--one nearly
unsurpassed in the history of cinema. This film is "art"
in the truest sense of the word. Greenaway has constructed a dense,
multilayered moving canvas. By weaving together text and image,
by piling image upon image, frame upon frame, he has created the
first truly multimedia motion picture. In some scenes, slides
are projected upon the actors, the sets. In others, Greenaway
creates an eyeboggling split-screen--editing two, sometimes three
or four, moving images on the screen at the same time. Some sequences
are shot in glowing black and white like some delicate silver
gelatin print. Others are done up in a rich sepia tone--from luminous
saffron to deep indigo. What initially seems like an experimental
work, slowly coalesces into an steady rhythm of image, text, word
The subject of The Pillow Book is, of course, ripe for
visual fetishization. While most of Greenaway's previous works
retain a certain creepy edge throughout, The Pillow Book
allows itself plenty of long, sensual passages without a hint
of darkness. The Asian world has a long history of erotic literature,
and Greenaway has created some heady sexual vistas that match
the history of sex and sentence. Actress Vivian Wu (The Last
Emperor, The Joy Luck Club) is delicious as Nagiko, inhabiting
her role like ... well, a second skin. Ewan McGregor comes off
less well, mumbling his lines like an embarrassed soap star. McGregor
is normally a magnetic actor, but he seems too far out of his
element here. Still, he's a fine-looking lad, and there are plenty
of glimpses of his dangling participle, if you're into such things.
Mind you, for all its ethereal, amorous adventuring, Greenaway's
trademark darkness is still there, waiting in the wings, waiting
to pounce. In time, Greenaway's story reveals a grim revenge plot
in the offing. Before it's over there will be blackmail, suicide
and murder. But even at it's darkest, The Pillow Book retains
the operatic tragedy of a Romeo and Juliet and not the
distressing brutality of, say, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife
& Her Lover.
From its glorious opening to its startling conclusion, The
Pillow Book is a rare piece of art. Like all great art--or,
for that matter, all great sex--it should be experienced, appreciated
and, ultimately, luxuriated in.