The Pillow Book

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

REVIEWED: 08-11-97

"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 and action.

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.

--Devin D. O'Leary

Full Length Reviews
The Pillow Book
The Pillow Book

Capsule Reviews
The Pillow Book

Other Films by Peter Greenaway
The Falls

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