The Pillow Book

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

REVIEWED: 08-25-97

In his new movie The Pillow Book, Peter Greenaway cites the two reliable pleasures in life: "the pleasures of the flesh, and the pleasures of literature." And so they are--everywhere but in Greenaway's films. In The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Greenaway viewed human sexuality with all the fondness and fervor of a clap specialist. In Prospero's Books, when he wasn't taking a leaf blower to the pages of The Tempest, he mangled the text with pissing cherubs, prancing nudes, and superimpositions of feet. Only a masochist would suffer this kind of pleasure.

That said, I confess a grudging respect for The Pillow Book, the least exasperating and most accessible of Greenaway's recent movies. (With Greenaway, "accessible" means the running time is only an era instead of an eternity.) The story, about a Japanese woman who uses her body as a canvas for calligraphy, bears Greenaway's familiar fixations with ritual, fetishism, and surfaces. But the movie doesn't seem as sadistic or as misanthropic as his earlier work. For the first time I can remember in a Greenaway film, there are moments of beauty that aren't undercut by cruelty or self-indulgence.

Greenaway has always used actors as screens made of skin; to some extent, that's what all filmmakers do. He carries this idea to its extreme in The Pillow Book, a movie whose heroine, Nagiko (Vivian Wu), exists only as a blank writing surface for male artists. Motivated by revenge against the publisher who destroyed her father, she finally seizes a brush and begins her own writing project--a work painted on the body of the publisher's young lover (Ewan McGregor, who's so likable and lively that he bursts his narrow role).

Greenaway has always had a striking graphic sense: His 1982 debut, The Draughtsman's Contract, a sort of 17th-century Blow-Up, made novel use of fixed frames. Since then he's tried to expand the visual possibilities of the screen by piling on smaller screens and plastering text over images. Sometimes the technique conveys the idea of montage as images in conflict--one picture may linger over subsequent events in a postcard-sized box onscreen. Sometimes it just looks like Windows 95. Both are true of The Pillow Book, which is spectacular and silly in equal measures. Graphically, the movie is often stunning, as when a solarized jet and a woman's silhouette blur into ideograms. Other times it's just laughably literal-minded. If someone mentions a child eating strawberries, then, by God, Greenaway's going to flash you a child eating strawberries.

But he still can't create believable emotions or people. Greenaway's characters may work fine as painting surfaces, but they have no interior life or independence that would arouse passion, and the director practically handles their couplings with tongs. Even the lurid revenge story becomes abstract and tedious--it's like a James M. Cain potboiler adapted for shadow puppets. Greenaway folds and shapes the screen in intriguing ways, but this whole exercise in cinematic origami is so airless and fussy that when it ended, I was left wondering exactly what he thinks the pleasures of the flesh and literature are.

--Jim Ridley

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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