8 1/2 WOMEN


Some ways into Peter Greenaway’s new film–it’s hard to say
when, precisely, because by the time the moment arrives the
viewer’s senses are already dulled by the picture’s combination
of willful obscurity and preening pretension–the very odd
father and son who are the focus of what passes for a plot are
watching as a woman newly recruited for their private harem is
having her hair shorn off. The two men bend over to pick up
fragments of her locks, stuff them into their faces, and take
turns suggesting what the aroma reminds them of. No conclusion
is reached on this important matter, but by then it’s entirely
clear what “8 1/2 Women” smells like, and it’s not perfume.

It’s always amazed me that people whose critical acumen is
usually sharp often take the work of Greenaway at all seriously.
In a series of self-indulgent, glacially slow and virtually
impenetrable films like “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her
Lover” (1989), “Prospero’s Books” (1991), “The Baby of Macon”
(1993), and “The Pillow Book” (1995), the British writer-
director has inflicted on the public a peculiar blend of
chilly anti-eroticism, pictorial overkill and pseudo-
philosophizing. To this viewer they’ve always seemed the work
of either a clever hoaxer or an inept pornographer pretending
to be an artist. If it’s the former, his repetitive act, with
its mixture of opaque dialogue, unappetizing nudity, bizarre
numerology, pointless references to books and text, and
cruel misanthropy, should by now have exhausted the tolerance
of even his early admirers. But I rather suspect that the
latter is true: Greenaway is actually self-deluded enough to
believe that what he’s “saying” in his films–whatever that
might be–is somehow profound and important. And so he can
smugly demand, as he so often does, that his films should be
looked upon as the cinematic equivalent of great paintings, to
be viewed repeatedly in order that their meaning can be
gradually revealed and their beauty properly appreciated. Few
sentient beings, however, will be able to sit through his
latest effort even once, let alone multiple times.

As the title indicates, Greenaway intends this film to be
something of a homage to Federico’s 1963 masterpiece of self-
examination, “8 1/2.” But the films couldn’t be more
different. While the Italian director’s opus blazed with
passionate fire and intriguing ideas, Greenaway’s picture is
emotionally desiccated and intellectually sterile. It’s
nothing but a collection of the filmmaker’s familiar mannerisms,
which were already dreary bores three pictures ago.

The storyline, to use a generous term, concerns Philip
Emmenthal (John Standing), a wealthy banker with a luxurious
Swiss estate, and his profligate son Storey (Matthew Delamere),
who is living the high life in Japan as the proprietor of a
sex-drenched gambling bar (and, for some reason, is also a
fancier of earthquakes). The two men are reunited by the death
of Philip’s wife; as the patriarch tries to come to terms with
his grief, he and his beloved boy, inspired by a viewing
of Fellini’s film, assemble on the grounds of the family
homestead a stable of women, each apparently representing some
aspect of the feminine ideal, whom they can in effect use to
satisfy their sexual fantasies. Ultimately, of course, the
men find themselves at the mercy of the women; the point
seems to be that when it comes to relationships with the
opposite sex, males will always, despite their protestations
of power and dominance, come in second, but whatever Greenaway
might think, that’s hardly a revelatory notion.

As usual, the director tries to conceal the thinness of his
ideas with a veneer of “artistic” photography, consistently
provocative dialogue and much abstruse symbolism. So we’re
treated to a succession of carefully-composed shots arranged
like tableaux in a museum, writing in which some reference to
the penis pops up every ten minutes or so, and scene
introductions which pointlessly superimpose script descriptions
of the location over the visuals for “effect.” The whole
effort is designed to create the impression of a master artist
at work, but it fails utterly. Unlike earlier Greenaway
projects, which were gaudily arresting to the eye even if their
content was obscure, it has a washed-out, mostly dark and dingy
appearance; and even the filmmaker’s vaunted perfectionism is
sadly lacking in four sequences involving corpses–in each case
the effect is ruined by a perceptibly throbbing vein or
heaving chest. As to the dialogue, the constant resort to the
glumly shocking (and the occasionally blasphemous) soon proves
more risible than compelling. In short, all of Greenaway’s
familiar tricks here seem half-hearted and tired.

It’s usual to commiserate with performers trapped in such
circumstances, but in the present case one must assume that
they knew what they were getting into, and so deserve their
voluntary humiliation. Standing, playing a character who’s
a windbag of gargantuan proportions, recites his phonily
high-toned monologues crisply, but without any real conviction;
at times his concentration is so low, it seems as though he
could just as well be reading the phone book. Delamere has
fewer painful lines to read, but he and the older man suffer
common degradation when the script forces them to climb into
bed together for a moment of intimacy, as well as in numerous
other instances when they must strip completely in front of
the camera (moments, you may be assured, that have no sexual
charge). The women, though treated mostly like sticks of
furniture, are less gruesomely dealt with; but surely Amanda
Plummer might have thought twice about essaying a character
who not only wears a revealing plastic torso-breast for
awhile, but is also apparently given to acts of bestiality
(a horse and a pig are involved).

But the actors don’t suffer nearly as much as the audience.
“8 1/2 Women” is, finally, like a two-hour swim in a sewer;
the thing leaves a rancid taste and makes one feel unclean and
in need of a hot shower immediately afterward. The only good
that might come of it is that it’s so patently awful that it
could cause even his most rabid admirers at long last to
recognize Peter Greenaway for the poseur that he is. It’s
just a pity that the memory of the great Fellini had to be
defiled in the process.