The Pillow Book

on June 06, 1997 by Melissa Morrison
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   The association of writing and eroticism. Burning books. A spectacularly gruesome death and a desecrated corpse. It's a Peter Greenaway picture all right--as stunning and inscrutable as ever. Place "The Cook, the Thief, the Wife and Her Lover" in an Asian setting, replace the books with calligraphy, and you've got "The Pillow Book." Nagiko (Vivian Wu) seeks to recreate with her lovers a childhood ritual in which her father, a writer, would paint a poem on her face, and her mother would read to her from a Japanese erotic classic called the Pillow Book, which recounts objects of sensuality. She begins by seeking lovers who are calligraphers and evolves into writing her own Pillow Book on the bodies of men, including Jerome ("Trainspotting's" Ewan McGregor), with whom she falls in love. Viewing this evolution is the filmic equivalent of visiting a contemporary art gallery: It's stretching the bounds, it begs study and it's sometimes beautiful. But what is it all supposed to mean?
   Among Greenaway's more unusual techniques is letterboxing, in which a secondary scene playing in a tiny corner of the screen elaborates the main action. The box's presence is like a TV in a bar; it distracts from the conversation at the table. Still, this isn't the kind of film where it's necessary to pay close attention to the plot. Each voluptuous, sometimes shocking image that flickers across the screen seems self-contained: Nagiko curled naked in her circular tub like a fetus, a book made from human flesh, the various body canvases (a hairless and muscled youth, a sumo wrestler, etc.) who are covered in script. (The credits feature 10 calligraphers.)
   Two-thirds through the movie, however, the disjointedness becomes tiring and Wu's acting verges on the shrill. But it wouldn't be surprising if Greenaway intended discomfort, too, to be part of the film's experience.    Starring Vivian Wu, Yoshi Oida and Ewan McGregor. Directed and written by Peter Greenaway. Produced by Kees Kasander. A Kasander & Wigman production; distributor not set. Drama. Japanese-, Mandarin-, Cantonese- and English-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 126 min. Screened at Cannes.
Tags: Vivian Wu, Yoshi Oida, Ewan McGregor, Peter Greenaway, Kees Kasander, Kasander & Wigman, Drama, Japanese, death, writer, art, lovers
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