Pros: Beautiful presentation, artfully filmed, sensual in the extreme
Cons: Texts are all in Japanese and this can distract
A film (movie, motion-picture, whatever you want to call a visual piece that is not static, but is created by the spinning of a film reel, video reel, or digital media) has the responsibility to be one thing before all others: interesting to the eye. Otherwise you would turn to reading a standard story or listening to one. Acting, sets, action or not, plot or not matter not at all if it isnt interesting to look at.
Whether gorgeous, nauseating, confusing, Peter Greenaways movies never fail to be interesting to look at, even if they fail on other (and in some cases on ALL other) aspects.
The Pillow Book is the best of what I call the one-time Greenaway films. By this I dont mean that you only want to watch it once (though there are going to be a large group of people for whom this is true), but that it wont require a second viewing to make sense of. For instance Drowning By Numbers requires more than one viewing because the count from 1-100 becomes so distracting that the difficult story becomes impossible to follow.
Nagiko (Vivian Wu) is the daughter of a writer who is subtly terrorized by the man who publishes his work. She is put through an arranged marriage with a husband chosen by this publisher. Nagiko is most driven and touched by literature and language (especially by the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting in the Japanese court a thousand years previously). Her husband is brutish and interested only in sports, particularly archery. She leaves him and Japan for a hidden life in Hong Kong where she makes a new life for herself in the fashion world. In Hong Kong, she explores her fascination with language by trying to find a lover and calligrapher (I couldnt determine which was better, an indifferent calligrapher who was a good lover or an excellent lover who was a poor calligrapher). This search ultimately leads her to Jerome (Ewan McGregor). His first pass as her calligrapher fails, but his second one succeeds and they become lovers. Nagiko discovers that the publisher who used to sodomize her father is doing the same to Jerome (and had the gall to turn down her first attempt at publication which was text written on the body of a sleeping Englishman). They conspire to gain revenge by producing a series of 13 books that were to be written on Jeromes body. Unfortunately, Nagiko becomes jealous of Jeromes desire for the publisher and starts writing on others. This leads to Jeromes suicide. Nagiko writes on his corpse, buries him, moves back to Japan. The publisher has the grave robbed and skins the corpse, making a pillow book of Jeromes skin. Nagiko learns of this and bargains to finish the series, but only if she can have Jeromes skin back.
Bar none, this is the most sensual film I have ever seen. Language becomes foreplay and sex and even infidelity. For instance, a teenage Nagiko is basically raped by the publisher when he usurps a role her father had always played. On her birthday, her father would write a creation myth on her face and sign the nape of her neck when he was finished. For one of her birthdays, the publisher, who blackmails the father by requiring sex in order to publish his work, signs the nape of her neck. This occurs about half an hour into the movie, and it is amazing how well Greenaway has created the link between text and the body because this simple act feels in all ways like watching a rape.
Later, her husband burns the pillow book she began keeping. This happens after a violent fight and ends with a fire that burns their whole place. This is what I call the second rape because the brutish husband takes a part of Nagikos soul and ruins it.
So, by the time Nagiko meets Jerome, the link between text and body are well established. Jerome provides two more links: the one to the publisher mentioned in the summary, and to languages beyond the Eastern. Prior to his appearance, many of the interiors are lit in a stage-like manner with overlays of Eastern languages (2 different versions of Japanese, one of Chinese if I am correct, and Sanskrit). After Jerome, the overlays add Cuneiform and even Latin. He completes the link between text and body by adding more languages to the palate.
I mentioned earlier that infidelity was also covered by the text/body connection; it actually leads to Jeromes suicide. Nagiko discovers that Jerome, who is involved in trying to get revenge on the lascivious publisher, is enjoying the coupling too much for her tastes. So she turns to other men for other of the books meant for Jeromes skin. He sees one of these and he realizes that she has been unfaithful. The book is written on a vulgar fat man and is called The Book of the Exhibitionist, so it is probable that Jerome understands that Nagiko didnt have sex with him; Jeromes horror and anger are driven by the fact that she has written on flesh other than his own.
Watching Nagiko and Jerome write on each others bodies left me tingling. This is what I mean by sensual. Even when Nagiko writes on the less attractive or even ugly, the act itself still remains supremely sensual. Calligraphy brush, watery ink, skin as paper. Think about lying down, looking into the eyes of your lover as he/she gently composes words on your exposed skin. Think of how smoothly it would tickle as the brush made its path, how the ink would go on a little chilly and warm with the body heat and mesh with the skin like a thin lotion.
Sei Shaonagon says that only two things are dependable: the pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature. I would add a couple of other things to this list, but I will not argue with her.
The Pillow Book puts those two dependable things together in a way that only film can. I am a book collector and near constant reader, but I stand by this statement. The reason I say it as I do is because film is a shared medium in a way that reading is not. Mainly this is because the images we see are the same; this is not true for literaturewe build our own private show that is impossible to share with anyone else.
This argument goes even further when you add the frames that Greenaway uses throughout. Frames are what I call the image overlays that show up periodically to either remind the viewer of analog events in the past, show what other characters are doing at the same time as the main image, or to show a series of related actions that dont require specific focus (as when the film shows the steps for Japanese book binding). Some writers, like Reinaldo Arenas, have tried to insert frames into their writing, buteven if this function was successfulit would still not have the same effect as visual frames.
The film is for cineastes. A casual viewer who wanted to see lots nudity would not necessarily be disappointed, but they would probably find the main story either dull or impossible to understand. Greenaway presents it in a painterly way as he does will all of his mature work.
My only complaint is that, while I find Japanese as a language beautiful to look at, I cannot read it. So when the camera lingers on texts, I can appreciate the talent of the calligrapher, but I have no idea what any of it says. Ive watched the film several times (most recently just a few minutes ago so I could write this review freshly), and this isnt something that bothered me the first couple of times I watched it because the sensuality was enough to maintain my complete attention. But as I have become more adept at watching it for more than just the sensuality, I cant help but think Im missing something because I cannot read Japanese.