The Pillow Book

| June 11, 2015

When God made the first clay model of a human being, He painted in the eyes, the lips, and the sex.  And then He painted in each person’s name lest the person should ever forget it.  If God approved of His creation, He brought the painted clay model into life by signing His own name.

Thus spake The Father (Ken Ogata) to his daughter, Nagiko (Vivian Wu); and the daughter to her lover, Jerome (Ewan McGregor); and the director, Peter Greenaway, to his audience.  Yes, Greenaway’s The Pillow Book is as much a statement on the act of creating as Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy or Robert Altman’s The Company.  For Nagiko, being written on evokes memories of childhood, when her father would use her skin as paper for elaborate Japanese calligraphy.  Eventually, however, she is inspired – both out of love and hate – to write for herself, using the bodies of male lovers.

This could very well be the creation myth for any artist, though filmmakers most especially.  Many – if not all – aspiring and established filmmakers have been inspired and infatuated with the cinema of their youth, and the voyeuristic aspect is, I believe, the most important factor.  Peter Greenaway seems to feel the same, based on extended shots of nude male and female bodies covered on writing in The Pillow Book, as well as some of his previous work like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and A Zed & Two Noughts.  Greenaway has often used his camera as a detached observer, creating the impression the audience is looking in on perversity in action.  It was as if the prurient thoughts of the audience were being projected on screen.  The Pillow Book takes a much more intimate approach, which is understandable despite being unsuccessful.  There are far more close-ups, the production design is more natural, and the transitions are more fluid, with images fading away slowly, lingering on the screen as another takes over.

I have not read Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, which serves as inspiration for the movie, but according to Wikipedia it is a collection of “lists of all kinds, personal thoughts, interesting events in court, poetry and some opinions on [Shonagon’s] contemporaries.”  That’s pretty much how Greenaway’s movie feels: a collection of lighting and editing flourishes, deliberate acting, diverse music, and plenty of nudity.  It is cinematic style-over-substance, although, for a director of Greenaway’s caliber, the style leaves much to be desired.  The Pillow Book is hypnotic, but it’s similar to being hypnotized for no other reason than the director’s amusement.  As the minutes ticked by, I wanted nothing more than to wake up and stretch my legs.

The Pillow Book looks and feels a lot like those 90s adult neo-noir/thrillers that were popular on Cinemax and Showtime.  The plot involves Nagiko’s attempt to take revenge against The Publisher (Yoshi Oida) who abused her father.  She enlists the help of her lover, Jerome, a translator who is also involved in a homosexual relationship with the publisher.  Nagiko sends the publisher her work painted on the bodies of Jerome and other young men.  However, Nagiko eventually becomes jealous of Jerome, Jerome becomes jealous of Nagiko, Nagiko ignores Jerome, and Jerome decides to get back at Nagiko by killing himself in her apartment.  These actions all take place in roughly fifteen minutes out of an exhausting two-hour runtime.  The plot is so desperately erotic and amateurishly ham-fisted, I started wishing Greenaway would give up and revert to the dream logic of Luis Bunuel.  As it is, there is none of the subversive playfulness of his earlier works, just the silly fantasies of a solipsistic writer/director.  Nothing really means anything beyond the creation myth (which is fascinating), and the eroticism is only used to bolster a plot that starts too late and runs too long.

It’s telling that – unlike Topsy-Turvy and The Company – we never see or hear any of Nagiko’s work outside of the titles (they are divided into thirteen books).  For a creation myth to work, to understand the passion and energy driving the director’s vision, we need to see what his or her surrogate artist creates.  The only hint Peter Greenaway gives us in The Pillow Book is the love scenes between Nagiko and Jerome, which come across as cheap soft-core pornography.  Roger Ebert once said, “Sex is an activity of great and serious importance to its participants, but as a spectator sport it has a strange way of turning into comedy.”  Or in this case, boredom.

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