DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
8 1/2 WOMEN (director/writer: Peter Greenaway; cinematographer: Sacha Vierny; editor: Elmer Leupen; cast: John Standing (Philip Emmenthal), Matthew Delamere (Storey Emmenthal), Polly Walker (Palmira), Amanda Plummer (Beryl), Toni Collette (Griselda), Kirina Mano (Mio), Vivian Wu (Kito), Natacha Amal (Giaconda), Giulietta (Manna Fujiwara); Runtime: 122; Lions Gate Films; 1999-Netherlands/UK/Ger/Lux)

 
"Felt so much like attending a tedious college lecture in a Fellini 101 course in perversity."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It's possible for Peter Greeaway ("Drowning by Numbers"/ "A Zed and Two Noughts" /``Prospero's Books'') to make a more boring sexual/erotic fantasy film, one that is more didactic and analytical, but not likely that he could duplicate one that is also so full of itself. It is the director's audacious opinion that he can get away without telling a good story to match the full frontal nudity display of men and women he flaunts throughout the film. It results in a torturous viewing experience. The reward for the viewer is a few delightful visuals and a few restrained chuckles, in a film that defies social conventions and commercial filmmaking sensibilities. This is something Greenaway has built a reputation on. His films are critic-proof, playing to art-house audiences who relish his deft camerawork and the cerebral challenges his films pose as puzzlers.

A wealthy 55-year-old Swiss businessman, Philip Emmenthal (John Standing), the director's alter ego, has just become a widow and grieves his wife's death and wonders who's going to hold and love him now. To the rescue comes his narcissistic thirtysomething son, Storey (Matthew Delamere), who gets into bed with him for some tender incest. The two bond further by trading sexual fantasies: Storey's fantasy is that he's in love with his own penis ever since he was a child and looked at himself in a double mirror. The old man responds to his kid's fantasy, by telling him that he should get a woman to kiss his dick.

After Philip goes to the cinema with his son and sees Fellini's 8 1/2 (an overrated film that the passage of time has been unkind to) and watches Mastroianni setting up a harem of women this gives the son an idea on how he can console his father, as he copies the film by setting up a harem in their Swiss estate. After viewing the film again on video, the son begins collecting the 8 1/2 women -- the half is an amputee bound in a wheelchair named Giulietta (Manna Fujiwara). Is her name an homage to Fellini's wife? If so, what a left-handed honor to bestow on Fellini! The father's response to the film is, "How many film directors make films to satisfy their sexual fantasies?" The son says --  "most of them." Which is about the best way of explaining what this very personal film means for Greenaway.

The film revolves around the women collected. The location of the story moves from Kyoto, Japan -- where the father closes a deal on pachinko parlors (pinball games) -- to different parts of Europe. In Kyoto, Kito (Vivian Wu) is seen as a repressed and headstrong business woman on their staff. She engineered their real-estate deals in Japan and helps them collect the Asian women.

The women collected who make some kind of impression include: a compulsive pachinko player (Shizuka Inoh) who gets in gambling debt thereby selling her body to Storey to cancel the debt, with her approving husband by her side; Mio (Kirina Mano), a female impersonator who happens to be female; a bizarre, horsewoman thief (Amanda Plummer), in a neck brace and facially made up like Joel Grey was in  "Cabaret," who loves horses and sleeps with a pig; Griselda (Collette), who is a Norwegian bank teller and a wannabe nun; a greedy baby making entrepreneur Giaconda (Natacha Amal), who sells her newborn babies for as high as $25,000; and, best of all, the only performance worth talking about in the film, the scheming Palmira (Polly Walker), as the adventurous libertine willing to sell her voluptuous body to Philip (she looks great in the nude). She is, of course, by the nature of this weird film, more attracted to Philip's aging, decrepit body than she is to his son's healthy and vital one.

The film didn't mean much to me, but it did say something about how women understand sex better than men and how men are such children when it comes to sex. It brought up the issue of sexual taboos and showed how art is a metaphor for one's obsessions in sex. The film felt so much like attending a tedious college lecture in a Fellini 101 course in perversity. Greenaway turned it into an anti-erotic movie, a text book type of film where there will always be something perceived about it intellectually to justify it as an erstwhile effort by those who wish to.

REVIEWED ON 10/15/2000     GRADE: C-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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