After the disappointment of The Baby of Mâcon, Peter Greenaway’s stunningly beautiful new film represents a triumphant return to form. The film-maker’s engagement with Asian culture has proved very positive and allowed him to renew his art. The title refers to a 10th century classic of Japanese erotica, which provides the starting point for an elegant, enigmatic tale of obsession and revenge in Japan and contemporary Hong Kong.
A young woman, Nagiko (Vivian Wu) finds erotic gratification in allowing her body to be inscribed with Japanese characters and, after her failed marriage, in writing on the bodies of her lovers. The opening sequences trace the fetish to Nagiko’s childhood, when every birthday her father paints her face with solemn, sensuous greetings. The adult Nagiko’s promiscuity is essentially a means of exploring different skin types and their reaction to her calligraphy. Her encounter with a young bisexual English linguist (Ewan McGregor) promises a perfect union until their relationship is destroyed by the same covetous publisher who had earlier blighted her father’s career.
The Pillow Book has all the usual hallmarks of a Greenaway film: spectacular visuals, cool sensuality, dense cultural references and bizarre fancies. But there is an openness and fluidity to the film that’s new in the director’s work. The experimentation with film form is continued, and reaches delirious heights with multiple images within a single frame and an amazingly intricate soundtrack. As usual, the director doesn’t shrink from erotic scenes, but there is definitely a gentler, more humanist approach to the characters and their dilemmas. As critic David Stratton concluded, ‘For Greenaway fans and filmgoers willing to be seduced by a richly decorative slice of Asian culture, The Pillow Book will be a treat.’ (U.K.-Holland-France, 1996. 123 mins.)