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'Women': The Greenaway Effect

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2000


    '8 1/2 Women' John Standing and Matthew Delamere star in "8 1/2 Women." (Lions Gate)
In "8 Women," Peter Greenaway's latest work, Philip (John Standing) and Storey (Matthew Delamere) Emmenthal, a father and son who are distraught over the death of Philip's wife, open a bordello on their Geneva estate.

Their idea comes after they have seen Federico Fellini's 1963 film "8 ," a movie about an artist with a creative block but a fertile sexual imagination.

In the context of a Greenaway film, Philip and Storey's bordello idea is completely rational behavior. The filmmaker's characters don't operate with conventional motivations; they're walking, talking models for Greenaway's abstract ideas.

Greenaway, the maker of "A Zed and Two Noughts," "Drowning by Numbers" and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," loves codes, conundrums and coincidence. He's obsessed with those arcane facts and figures that describe an entire world of meaning under our unsuspecting noses.

He has a sort of infrared vision, which sees the biological when we see the sexual, the aesthetic when we're distracted by the disgusting or the philosophical when we are screaming with indignation at the taboo. You watch his films at odds with your own sensibilities. You have to stand on your tiptoes to get the slightest sense of what he's up to.

When Storey decides to take his father's mind off the tragedy by having sex with him, you need to get over that. You're supposed to be thinking about Greenaway's real agenda.

Perhaps he's asking us to reconsider attitudes toward incest. Or maybe he dug up some statistic that cites Geneva as the leading locale for incestuous incidents. Who knows? Watching a Greenaway film is anything but casual relaxation.

So Philip and Storey start their harem. Among the stable of hired talent: Kito (Vivian Wu, who also appeared in Greenaway's "The Pillow Book") is a headstrong but emotionally repressed businesswoman; Griselda (Toni Collette), a Norwegian bank cashier who embarks on a personal odyssey of her own to become a nun (I think); and Palmira (Polly Walker), a strong-willed, spiritually centered woman who finds Philip's aging frame infinitely more alluring than Storey's.

And let's not forget Giulietta (Manna Fujiwara), a simple but mysterious woman with amputated legs who embodies that fraction in the movie title.

Far from being sexual cattle, these women are complex beings (or complex Greenaway ideas disguised as humans) who will not be bound by the men's patriarchal expectations. Like the Pachinko machines in the gambling parlors of Japan (where the movie is partly set), they are far from calculable. They are, in effect, games of chance.

Greenaway takes Fellini's themes from "8 ," which include sexual power, miscommunication between men and women and the solipsism of the artist, and transmogrifies them into his own obsessions: class, the vagaries of chance, the taboo, self-reflection, art as metaphor for existence, and the human form.

Speaking of the human form, Greenaway's a lifelong painter and art scholar who never met a human being, male or female, skinny or overweight, who he didn't find perfect for a frontal nude shot. He acquaints you intimately with Philip and Storey, as well as the 8 1/2 women. You'll leave this movie with an entirely new feeling (from boredom to newly sensitized appreciation) about nudity.

It is something akin to folly to even attempt an interpretation. As with all of Greenaway's work, "8 Women" intentionally defies categorization and explication – certainly after only one viewing. Clues to Greenaway's feature-length mysteries – at least, in my experience – can only be found in the dense, arcana-filled circuitry of the filmmaker's brain.

What I'm saying is, you have to ask him. I can only counsel you to enter this movie with your reflexes fine-tuned and your desire to see a normal movie completely suppressed. Maybe then you'll see the movie you're supposed to.

8 1/2 WOMEN (R, 116 minutes) – Contains nudity, sexual scenes, violence and obscenity.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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