8½ Women

(© 2000 Lions Gate Films. All rights reserved.)

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   C R I S S A - J E A N   C H A P P E L L

Peter Greenaway's cerebral, sumptuous movies (which include The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Pillow Book) look at cinema as a text -- not to be "read" but visually interpreted outside the word-bound conventions of storytelling. This puts off people who label his formula-driven films "pretentious" and "indulgent." His self-referential sign-posts (recurring words, numbers, and artistic allusions) attract rare creatures who delight in postmodernism for its own sake, like the Brechtian actor who breaks the fourth wall, stepping aside to whisper, "I'm only playing a role. Don't believe anything I say."

The script for Greenaway's 8½ Women doesn't allow us to vicariously "become" the characters. Their personal experiences are not our own. Their worries, thoughts, and troubles (indeed, their inner landscape) becomes the surface upon which Greenaway scatters his puzzle pieces. Plot-wise, his driving themes of intimate human psychology dominate over dramatic tension. As expected, the latest Greenaway riddle dwells on s-e-x. Who needs it when abstract fantasies fulfill more than the messy deed itself?

Philip Emmenthal (British thespian John Standing) and his grown-up son, Storey (Matthew Delamere), bury the family matriarch with much hullabaloo. "Who will hold me now?" wonders her bereft husband, who claims he couldn't please madam between the sheets. He insists on wearing white to the funeral (his wife could never tolerate the color black), and he coaxes the gawking parties to bear their non-black knickers. Emmenthal makes a tragic figure, a gristly old man doing a soft-shoe dance, a wealthy fuddy duddy, though an unhappy one. When Storey invites him to the movies, he shudders. There's no use sitting in the dark with strangers. It's far too "intimate."

After watching , Fellini's ode to idealized femalehood, father and son form a harem. They recruit 8½ cross-continental members of the fairer sex to suit their stylized fantasies. Simato (Annie Shizuka Inoh) a gambling addict, agrees to play concubine in exchange for pachinko credit at Japanese pinball and slot machines. Mio (Kirina Mano) idolizes female impersonators. They represent the perfect form: neither man nor woman, but something beyond both. Beryl (Amanda Plummer, sporting a bizarre accent and a plastic neck brace) practices unusual acts on pigs and horses. Griselda (Toni Collette) aspires to nunhood and shaves her head. Giaconda (Natacha Amal) is perpetually pregnant. Palmira (Polly Walker) demands a $75,000 payment for her inexhaustible services. Storey's Japanese interpreter, Kito (Vivian Wu), is an old-fashioned dragon-lady. Clothide does the cooking and cleaning. And poor Giulietta (perhaps named for Fellini's Signora?) is a tormented mannequin, a half-woman confined to a wheel-chair.

These assorted ladies serve as stereotypes. Their identities never fully develop. Their libidos are reduced to clinical detachment, while their bodies are stripped to dimpled glory and examined at arm's length. When they speak, they dribble clichés. Love-making is just a means of exerting control. So this is how the old, blue-blooded man and his mopey son view women? Then we must conjure another cliché -- the British taste for kink and masochism.

It's possible to perceive Emmenthal and Storey as one entity, split into two parts. In an early scene, the son asks his father to strip down to his bulbous belly so that he might "see himself" at a future age. They make cracks about homoerotic incest and the Oedipal complex. The mention of Dr. Freud brings to mind another theory, that of "primary narcissism" or sex with oneself. The women might represent different stages of sexual awakening, from the so-called latency period (the father's inability to express himself sexually with his wife), to autoerotic and masturbatory manifestations (experiencing a threesome with his son is like sex with himself), to lust and romance and all stages in-between. In Freud's 1931 essay, "Female Sexuality," he states that women choose husbands who resemble their fathers. Thus, many of these archtypical women respond more to Emmenthal than his son.

Greenaway provides a detail-rich tableaux of intangible theories. Earthquakes and tumbling coins remind us that love, like a game of chance, is erratic and unstable. Greenaway's game almost achieves dramatic tension toward the end when his Utopia falls apart. He doesn't rely on his usual array of dazzling visual oddities, aside from meaningless shots of his superimposed script. It's a tremendous disappointment coming from a director so full of dark humor. Like Freud, he might believe that women aren't as moral as men, that they steer themselves by feelings instead of a sense of justice. Their unconscious misbehaves more than men's, but their wishes are more likely to rise into reality. If that were true, it would take more than 8½ women to make these two men whole.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]