8 1/2 Women
1999, R, 118 min. Directed by Peter Greenaway. Starring Vivian Wu, Toni Collete, Amanda Plummer, Polly Walker, Matthew Delamere, John Standing.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 9, 2000
Although I can recount for you the details of Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women, I can't make it all add up. Ever the artful iconoclast, Greenaway's new film is a meditation on men and women, grief and loss, earthquakes and pachinko. Maybe. Or maybe, as one of the characters in 8 1/2 Women opines, “directors make films to satisfy their sexual fantasies.” In that case, we're dealing here with the sexual fantasies of one of the most misanthropic film artists to ever work in the medium. Enter at your own risk. Greenaway, who is best known for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, is often described as a director whose movies “are not for everyone.” The obvious retort is that neither are the Three Stooges, but at least everyone understands them. Greenaway's films are full of playful obsessions and absurd actualizations. In films such as The Pillow Book, Prospero's Books, Drowning by Numbers, and A Zed and Two Naughts, we have witnessed the British director's fetishitic visual and thematic tendencies: his obsession with numbers, games, elaborate set-pieces, breathtaking compositions, male and female nudity, and narrative deconstruction. All are present in 8 1/2 Women. As the movie begins, it takes a while for the story to come into focus as Greenaway tosses out snatches of narrative and even includes written stage direction in the visual frame. Gradually, we learn that wealthy Philip Emmenthal's wife has died and his son Storey returns from the pachinko parlor he runs in Tokyo to his family's estate in Geneva. In an attempt to console Philip's anguish (I think) over who would ever again love his naked body, son Storey strips to the buff and compares his naked body with his dad's. Both men get into bed together, and the implication of incest is strongly suggested. Both men like to talk about their penises and what Jane Austen heroines might be like in bed. The men also attempt to divert their grief by taking in a screening of Fellini's self-reflexive masterpiece 8 1/2. From this, the two get the idea to populate the spare bedrooms of their mansion with a bevy of women. Talk about your fantasies. Their collection of women turns out to be an even odder assortment of characters than their hosts. There's the one who has a thing for horses and one very special pig, another who is studying to be a female impersonator, one who wants to be pregnant all the time, another who's in it for the dead wife's hats. It takes the final moments of the film before we discover the joke about the 1/2 woman. Yet for all this sensualism, Greenaway's film remains a very prurient affair. Although this is typical of the filmmaker's work, it's curious that he honors the spirit of Fellini with this title. For few filmmakers are seemingly more dissimilar than these two. La Dolce Vita, according to Peter Greenaway, is a life without joy.