The Pillow Book

(Peter Greenaway, UK/Netherlands/France, 1996)


Now, here's something surprising: a Peter Greenaway film that I can actually get enthusiastic about. The Pillow Book has one of those odd, fanciful, tall-tale Greenaway plots that sound pretty nonsensical in synopsis form. It essentially concerns Nagiko (Vivian Wu), who has a pronounced taste for having her body written upon in various elaborate calligraphic styles (and by various men, including Ewan McGregor). It's something that started in childhood, when her father (Ken Ogata) used to write on her. Another thing that starts in Nagiko's childhood is a passion for an almost thousand year old Japanese work of erotic literature called The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. The third thing implanted in Nagiko's mind from an early age is the image of a mysterious and sinister publisher (Yoshi Oida) who has an exploitative hold on her father.

When Nagiko grows up, written on extensively by all manner of interesting men and eventually doing some of this body-writing herself, she comes into intense conflict with this old publisher – and, at that point, the film becomes a somewhat gruesome tale or ritual of revenge. That evil publisher figure is going to have some reviewers calling this film homophobic – but let's not get started on that.

I once heard Greenaway comment that he finds story-telling too easy, boring even. His boredom is sometimes evident in his clumsy, at times amateurish handling of fairly ordinary scenes – ordinary, dramatic scenes of people talking or interacting. This is all too nineteenth-century for Greenaway, too much like drawing-room theatre or stuffy classical novels. So his imaginative powers, his energy and invention, get channelled into new visual technologies that allow the superimposing of images, little windows within images, the painterly alteration of colour and shade. On the set itself (one hears), he's more interested in the manipulation of light and the contours of architectural design than he is in the actors, who sometimes look palpably ill at ease and undirected.

For these reasons and other, deeper ones, I've never been a big Greenaway fan. Many of his devotees tend to shower his most achieved works with words like "exquisite" and "delicate" and "refined", like they're describing fine food rather than fine film – and they will almost certainly say the same of The Pillow Book. I've just realised that I almost never use the adjective "exquisite" to describe any film that I like. And that's probably because it's only a step away, in my mind, from words like restrained, arch, repressed, erudite and hyper-cerebral. In other words, I think Greenaway's films tend to belong to a very particular fraction of high bourgeois culture, a culture that values rigid control, thought and inhibition of crude emotion and show-off displays of learning, above all else. What's strange about this, of course, is that I imagine Greenaway thinks of himself as something of a rebel within this temple of cultural capital, the transgressive who rubs our face in all sorts of scatological and inhuman spectacles, as he has done in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989) and The Baby of Macon (1993). But of course, the erudite rebel, the shocking dandy, the exquisite libertine – those figures are much a part of this high culture as anything or anyone else. That's a tradition that includes not only Greenaway but the Australian comedian Barry Humphries, as well as any number of high-class pornographers down the centuries you'd care to name.

When people say "exquisite", what they really mean is "not vulgar" and, in a sense, not entertaining – at least in some base Hollywood way. And here's a paradox in Greenaway's art: for all the flesh, cannibalism, kinky sex, revenge plots and Grand Guignol, there is absolutely no spirit of vulgarity in his work, no real enjoyment of the physical, no feeling of spontaneous release. There may be "contemplation of the sensual", yes, there may be "a meditation on the modes of the body in art and philosophy and social systems", of course – but there is no getting off in a Greenaway film. A friend of mine who wandered dazed out of Prospero's Books (1991) commented that never had so much flesh on screen had such a deadening effect on his libido. And you'd have to be an extremely cultivated and sophisticated libertine to find the sexuality in Greenaway's films – this incredibly ritualised, theatricalised, ceremonialised sexuality – a turn-on of any sort.

The cultural learning, erudite aspect in Greenaway is a bit different, certainly in its effects on audiences. Where the sexual aspects of his art promote boredom in some, the highbrow references to art, culture, philosophy and history tend to push many people's hysteria buttons. I don't blame Greenaway for this problem. Some people get hyper-defensive and aggro when they are confronted with a film, any film, that they don't immediately understand, that they can't "get" in a single sitting. And when you've got any film that makes people feel in any way that they're stupid or lacking some vital piece of their education or just not in the know, not up to date with the latest – well, that uncomfortable feeling in a viewer is going to be instantly and ruthlessly converted into a mean-spirited accusation against the filmmaker. The filmmaker is a smart ass, he's trying to have one over us, he's actively trying to make us feel like morons, he just wants us to know he's superior to us ... and worse, a con artist, a sham, some postmodern pretender to knowledge and culture that he doesn't even have.

In some ways Greenaway does indeed invite this aggro response. His films are usually impossible to take in whole in one sitting; they are baroque, multi-layered objects. He of course defends that, saying that this multi-layered complexity brings cinema closer to the novel or painting or music, and that's a fair enough argument. Indeed, for a number of years now, Greenaway's work has been finding a more favourable home in big art galleries rather than small arthouse cinemas. But, taken as films, as art films, Greenaway's movies certainly have particularly uninviting aspects. They are very teacherly, and Greenaway himself as a public figure is teacherly to the point of pomposity. Certainly, outright humour is his absolute weakest suit. Then, his films are allegorical and metaphorical sometimes in the most arch and encrypted ways: you won't even understand the progression of the story, sometimes, unless you already know the precise structure of some great art work or philosophical system or ancient cosmology. And aesthetically – and here for me is the great failing of Greenaway's art – his films are so packed-in with their layers and references that they just don't flow well, they lack any satisfying lightness, rhythm or temporal form that can help sculpt our understanding of his concepts and conceits. If you've seen Greenaway's short A Walk Through Prospero's Library (1991), where he "unpacks" a single long shot from Prospero's Books, talking over it as he replays it again and again, you might well have asked yourself: What on earth did he expect us to get from that shot the first time we saw it, just once through, in the turgid flow of the film itself?

So why do I like The Pillow Book more than any previous Greenaway film? Well, this film to me does have a lightness. It bogs down a bit in the last third, when you get that lock-step, mechanical playing out of a structure (as happens in so many of his films). But the film has a poetry, a lyricism, and even a sensuality, and these are not words I have ever felt like using before in relation to Greenaway. And I don't think it's a pretentious, over-intellectualised film. Although I'm sure nervous-nelly reviewers will be running to the press kit to regurgitate the director's deep statements about art and calligraphy and hieroglyphics and whatnot, it seems to me that the subject of The Pillow Book is perfectly clear, and perfectly simple. It's about the twin pleasures of the flesh and of writing. The metaphors don't really get any more tangled or complex than that: bodily pleasure is a kind of writing or inscription on the flesh; and literature or writing is an erotic activity, both physically and in the imagination. The film works out a dozen variations on this central idea, and some of them are absolutely charming, everyday occurrences: like the image of someone writing down their date's phone number on their palm.

I have often found the setting, the cultural milieu, of a Greenaway film oppressive and daunting – like the world of architecture as portrayed in The Belly of an Architect (1987). In these settings, Greenaway really does tend to bludgeon us over the head with his vast erudition. In The Pillow Book, however, we get something, for a change, a little lighter, weightless almost. We are in the world of the high fashion model, the boutique publisher, the fashionable artist, the translator and the public relations person. It's a glamorous, almost showbiz world, and – to my surprise – Greenaway does not deliver any damning moral or aesthetic judgement upon it. No, it's the best part of his own cultural relativism, that he takes what he admires in the cultures of calligraphy or high art or arcane poetic literature, and then he re-finds their spirit – and their letter – in these nominally more superficial worlds. And by gosh, there's even pop music – dance music, techno music – on the soundtrack of a Greenaway film for once, in place of that metronomic, grinding Michael Nyman stuff.

In The Pillow Book, there is evidence of the closest thing to sentiment that we'll ever get from a Greenaway film. Of course, we know that this artist has an almost certainly anti-humanist approach to characters and their emotional turmoils. The people in his films are often ciphers or insects, interchangeable species-creatures of weight and volume and organs and bodily flows, more than individuals with inner lives and secret histories. We know that he regards the grand human stories of heart and passion, jealousy and hate with a droll eye, an elevated gaze: these are just the cliché, cyclical scenes that the human animal is compelled to play out, like some laboratory rat. But in The Pillow Book, even this sense of déjà vu, this sense that we are all living out the same old immemorial scenes – even this is celebrated in a light way. Some of Greenaway's characters, like the hero in Belly of an Architect, suffer terribly from what art historians call an "anxiety of influence" – they become possessed, and then eaten away, by the vampiric spirits of past visionaries. In The Pillow Book, this endless homage to the past, the re-living or re-channelling of the past, is a light and lovely thing. Even making love in the afternoon has its pleasure and thrill doubled for the characters in this film, when they do it in strict homage to the great Japanese erotic prints.

If there is never really love, or individual will, or profound experiences of inner emotion in Greenaway's universe, there is, in The Pillow Book, something resembling desire and pleasure – and also, right across the film, a grace, a real delight in lyrical and poetic phenomena. Throughout the story, there are little lists and inventories, slow montage sequences, devoted to "things that make the heart quicken" – and they are truly beautiful. And in the central family portrait – the relation of little Nagiko to her father and mother – there is something so touching. Of course, on one level, it's all some allegory of art: the father writes on her, and the mother reads to her. But it's more than that: it's the animation of flesh, the inspiration of an imagination, the gestation of an individual through these acts of art. Birth and growth and death, the dreams and possibilities and limits of human flesh: Greenaway has often shown these things, as in A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), but usually in a cold, diagrammatic, theoretical way. But The Pillow Book made me think and feel that, even for Greenaway, there are fond things that make life worth living after all.

MORE Greenaway: Death in the Seine

© Adrian Martin December 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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