Directed by Peter Greenaway (The Pillow Book; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover), the dark side of ecstasy unfolds against the backdrop of Japan’s frenzied pachinko parlors and the Swiss countryside.
After the death of his wife, a wealthy businessman questions his devotion to his passive spouse and denial of sensual experimentation for their many years of marriage. When his son returns to the family’s Swiss chateau from Japan where he manages his father’s pachinko parlors, he brings his father to see Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, 8 1/2. The sight of so many magnificent women inspires them to turn their Swiss mansion into a chateau of sexual pleasure.
But soon their wild sexual fantasies begin to unravel, and the two men discover that when fantasy becomes reality, the balance of power can shift. When it does, those seemingly in control don’t always come out on top.
8½ Women 8.0
eyelights: the build-up. the gorgeous photography. the eye-catching locales. the equal-opportunity nudity.
eyesores: the apparent misogyny. the wind-down.
“Why make a film when you can live it? Most films are about people longing for something that they haven’t got, and what they haven’t got is sex and happiness… and we’ve got both. Or at least… I have.”
In the wake of his spouse’s passing, a wealthy businessman reconnects with his son through his sexuality, as the two divulge intimate details and bare themselves. Then, inspired by Federico Fellini’s ‘8 ½‘, the pair decide to gather eight and half women to live with them under contracted servitude for a year.
I’ve only seen a few of Peter Greenaway’s films. My first exposure to his unusual genius, as it was for many people, was ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’. What I remember most about it was the dispassionate way in which he portrayed human passions: even in revelry, there was a disquieting feeling that all was not well.
The films I’ve seen (‘The Cook…’, ‘Prospero’s Books’ and ‘The Pillow Book’) are primarily about human relationships and have a distinct flavour: they have an unmistakably artistic quality (which is claimed to be rooted in Renaissance works), rarely exude warmth (even though they frequently are sexually explicit) and they can be callous.
For me, what appealed the most was the artistic quality of his films. Although I was left only mildly intrigued by ‘The Cook…’, it was ‘Prospero’s Books’ that really sold me on Greenaway: it was an ambitious picture that merged literature, theatre, video art and cinema into an utterly fascinating mixture; it was a sensual feast.
Ever since, I’ve been on the lookout for Greenaway films, and picked up what I could when the opportunity arose. The latest was ‘8½ Women’, which immediately caught my eye because of its title: Why 8½? Why not 8? Or 9? Then I read the back of the box, which partly answered my questions. Then my eyes found Greenaway’s name.
Although I hadn’t seen Fellini’s ‘8½’ in maybe a decade (and only the once), and hadn’t been especially moved by it, I knew that it was extremely influential. If Peter Greenaway used it as the inspiration to ‘8½ Women’, I knew that it would result in something I would likely never see again. It piqued my curiosity.
And rightly so: like it or not, ‘8½ Women’ is an unforgettable picture; it is visually sublime and morally ambiguous. I savoured all the sights, both the locations and the many beautiful women, and relished the complex dynamics that Greenaway put on the screen, leaving me unsure about his intention and propriety.
In particular, I was left confused by the impression that his characters were misogynists – if only because of their plan to hire women to be love slaves. But I also wondered about Greenaway, because he eventually made the women change the power dynamics in the household in ways that seemed stereotypical.
And yet, he had some of the characters express the notion that women were the most loved and powerful of the two genders. So, in which camp did his chauvinism stake its ground? Was he a male chauvinist, a female chauvinist, or neither? To me, this was unclear and, thus, I couldn’t decide how acceptable the film is.
On a similar note, he made male and female nudity equally accessible – although not in the same variety, as there are only two male protagonists. And there was a lot more full frontal nudity of the men, which led me to believe that he purposely balanced the picture to be equal-opportunity, or that all nudity was incidental.
Or perhaps he merely took an amoral perspective. This would apply, because he went so far as to have the father and son sleep together, providing no judgement or consequences to the act. In fact, he approaches such things with such a remove that I myself wasn’t even fazed or shocked by the act (which was off-screen, b-t-w).
Of course, in Greenaway motion pictures, we’re always encountering worlds filled with unusual characters and behaviours, so it’s par for the course. One perfect example of this is the choice of female personages selected for the harem: a pachinko addict, a kabuki performer, a pig-loving horse thief in a body brace, …etc.
Even the otherwise staid father sometimes behaves in strange ways: because his spouse hated black, he arrives at her burial dressed all in white. Following his son’s protests, saying that everyone would be shocked, the father strips naked and borrows black clothing from his servants – right in the cemetery, in front of everyone.
Having said this, Greenaway seems to have wanted ‘8½ Women’ to be partly humourous, as evidenced by some of the earlier dialogues (“How many directors do you think use films to fulfill their sexual fantasies?” “Most of them, I think.”). So maybe it wasn’t just a matter of spotlighting the unconventional, even erratic, behaviour.
Either way, whatever his intention (if he’s purposely trying to be funny, he’s got an unusual approach to comedy), I chuckled quite a bit during the viewing. And I especially enjoyed his photographer’s eye: there were a number of shots where the characters got lost in the grandeur of their environments by virtue of how he framed them.
It’s all about making use of what is available, of course, but the locations didn’t hurt one bit: whether it was the pachinko parlour, the airport with the gridded ceiling, or the fantastic Geneva mansion where much of the film is set, Greenaway really knew how to pick them. These were as much personalities as the people themselves.
‘8½ Women ‘ is broken up into five parts, each of which is introduced via a title and segment of the script., but it still follows a three-act structure. And yet, while it follows certain conventions, it doesn’t play by conventional rules, eschewing happy endings and clarity – instead, it leaves one with a sobering grey zone.
And, in the end, that’s part of what makes ‘8½ Women’ work: at no point does one gets the impression that Greenaway served up anything but truth. That is to say that, with these characters and these circumstances, the story could easily unfold this way – at no point do we get cheated for convenience’s sake or to cater to the whim of the masses.
In an industry that thrives on homogeneity, prepackaging and so-called Hollywood endings, it’s refreshing to see anything that doesn’t conform, and does it well – no matter what its flaws are. That’s why an intriguing work like ‘8½ Women’ is more likely to draw me more frequently than the latest blockbuster hit: it serves up something unique and stimulating.
Date of viewing: May 19, 2014