The main character in any Greenaway film is always the film itself -- a beast of elegant composition, lively imagery, and irreverent editing -- but unlike Kubrick, he does not sacrifice his characters' essential humanity to serve a domineering vision. Rather, he amplifies that humanity, hungrily bringing forth every eccentricity he can get his hands on. 8 1/2 Women offers plentiful evidence of this, as we explore the relationship of Storey Emmenthal (Matthew Delamere, Shadowlands) to his father, Philip (John Standing, Mrs. Dalloway), amid a choppy sea of feminine virtues and vices. Storey is a clever businessman, happily planted among the garish Pachinko parlors of Kyoto, sparring in occasional real-estate deals with the equally crafty Kito (Vivian Wu). Life erupts as abruptly as Japan's frequent earthquakes when Philip calls his son to tell him his mother is dead, leading the young man back to his father's august manor house in Geneva.
In one of many devilishly glib exchanges, the catatonic father and his disoriented son stand gazing over Mrs. Emmenthal's body, cold in the same bed where Storey was conceived. In an attempt to lighten his father's spirits, the young man jokes that his father probably wasn't sleeping during that exchange. "No, but I have a feeling your mother was," deadpans Philip, laying the foundation of frustration for the plentiful laying to come. (When provoked to fill the empty bedrooms of his mansion, the elder Emmenthal quips in knowing foreshadow, "What with? Concubines?") First, however, Storey attempts to rehabilitate his dad, in ways both shocking (thankfully, offscreen) and routine, such as sharing movies. In this case, the life and work of Fellini (thus the 8 1/2) provoke obsessive choices in the father and son. Inspired by Philip's regenerating faith (and a whole lot of phallic yammering), the two return to a Pachinko parlor in Japan ("a trap for weak-minded women with nothing better to do") to begin building their harem.
Technically, 8 1/2 Women has a lot in common with Greenaway's The Pillow Book, from the artful appraisal of bodies to the slow, thoughtful pacing to Wu, but the stakes here are entirely different. Self-sacrifice and revenge give way to subtler shadings and advances, many of which may leave viewers not accustomed to Greenaway's elitist style a bit dumbfounded. Although the imagery here is not as dense as that of The Pillow Book or especially Prospero's Books, the tiny gradations of awareness that play out squarely in front of the camera make up for it. By inviting their conquests to Geneva, the two men stir up a sexual and emotional tempest as dangerous as it is exciting.
In addition to Kito, Storey and Philip invite the charismatic and voracious Palmira (Polly Walker, Enchanted April) into their fold, struggling to match their comparatively puny appetites against hers. They also nearly run down the plucky horse thief Beryl (Amanda Plummer, The Fisher King), who spends much of the movie nude, in traction, or both, and has a strong spiritual connection to a friendly pig. Less whimsical are Simato (Shizuka Inoh, Guo Dao Feng Bi), a Pachinko addict, and Griselda (Toni Colette, Velvet Goldmine), a deceptively prim Norwegian bank clerk. Rounding out the private bordello are the emotionally volatile maid Clothilde (Barbara Sarafian, Fortress II), the excessively fertile Giaconda (Natacha Amal, Bimboland), and the tiny, delicate Mio (Kirina Mano, Bullet Ballet), who will do anything to learn true femininity, even if it means studying a male Kabuki actor in drag. There is also a "half-woman," (Mana Fujiwara in her feature debut), but you may wish to sort her out for yourself.
There isn't much ugliness or brutality in 8 1/2 Women, and -- given the consenting nature of everyone involved -- the "controversial" themes don't even seem very disturbing. Luridness lurks in the corners this time out, replaced center stage by a refreshing candor ("Most films are about people longing for what they haven't got, and what most people haven't got is sex and happiness") and, once again for Greenaway, a reverence for architecture, wrought in both stone and flesh. The manor house becomes a living museum of erotic sculpture -- not all at once, mind you, don't get your hopes up that high -- and, exhibit by exhibit, the character of these men is revealed by the women they have attracted. When morbidity finally comes knocking, the movie has already risen to a dream state, resonating in both the physical tremors of Kyoto and the sensual ones of Geneva. Greenaway, as usual, has taken on a lot of responsibility as dream weaver -- blending sex, filial love, money, faith, and transgression -- but his efforts have produced another scintillating tapestry.