Peter Greenaway’s newest gets off to an unexpectedly straightforward start. Unfortunately, as the film descends into the impish perversions commonly associated with the director, it becomes somewhat more obtuse. 8½ Women turns out to be a gratifying piece of work, but with a distended midsection that demands an awful lot of fortitude on the way to a relatively strong and even touching final reel.
Crammed with allusions to art history, the film takes Fellini’s 8½ as the literal inspiration for a father-and-son scheme to acquire a sort of harem after the mother passes away. Their relationship comes across as something more intimate and physically oriented than those (I imagine) most of us have with our own fathers and sons. Conversations about the workings of the penis help pass the time away, and the younger man seems truly and touchingly concerned with the mental health and well-being of grieving papa in the absence of mother’s stabilizing influence. In a scene that encapsulates a terrible sense of loss and distress, the husband weeps openly, wondering who will ever hold him close again.
As the son helps investigate the answer to that question, Greenaway’s subject turns to sex and sexual fantasy. The two of them chatter through a screening of the Fellini film and are somehow inspired to indulge themselves sexually by gathering an artful collection of women to service them.
By accident rather than design I wound up watching this film more or less back-to-back with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, which had been languishing unseen on my DVD shelf for a couple of years before I finally decided to take a look. Based on writings of the Marquis de Sade, Salo depicts a group of debauched Italian fascists forcing nubile young lads and lasses through progressively more horrifying circles of sado-sexual hell. Truth be told, Salo has more in common with the Greenaway film than 8½ does.
I don’t mean to suggest that 8½ Women is imbued with the same kind of evil that permeates Salo; despite his usual dourness, Greenaway seems more optimistic than ever about the human condition — playful, even. If sex with these women isn’t exactly a consensual arrangement — some of them are plied with the promise of money, or the feeling that debts are owed — it is at least voluntary. (I find myself second-guessing that description, but the arrangements are at least polite if not pleasant.) And if the two men engage in behavior that polite society wouldn’t necessarily consider normal or healthy, their deviance seems to be meant as only an exaggeration of the abiding male sexual condition, which tends toward the adventurous and the voracious.
Trouble is, as Greenaway begins exploring that condition, his narrative becomes progressively more fragmented and more bizarre, and not in a good way. After he builds the relationship between the two male characters so organically, the highly episodic approach Greenaway takes to each of the titular women is disorienting and disappointing. Even the imagery, provided by master cinematographer Sacha Vierny (a favored collaborator of Alain Resnais, as well) is more pedestrian than usual, with those gorgeous tracking shots kept to a bare minimum — apparently Greenaway’s pageantry budget has been slashed severely. The low-rent aura makes the more stylish props and conceits (check out Amanda Plummer’s transparent medical corset, for instance) seem oddly out of place, though the extended studies in naked male and female flesh fare well in these earthy surroundings (check out Amanda Plummer’s nude horseback ride). Other trademark Greenaway flourishes, such as the superimposition of passages of text over key shots in the film, can be found here, but are few and far between.
I’ve never understood the strongest objections to Greenaway’s films, many of which cite an alleged arrogance that’s said to permeate everything he does. David Thomson, a critic whose writing I greatly admire, disparaged Prospero’s Books, Greenaway’s riff on The Tempest, as an insult not only to Shakespeare but also to the late John Gielgud, who starred. God knows what Thomson would say about this film. Me, I find it to be a long but ultimately rewarding sit. Even the relative lack of ornamentation is somewhat refreshing in the context of Greenaway’s career (which encompasses such thoroughly ornamented work as Drowning By Numbers, The Pillow Book and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). This could be the sign of a director who’s running out of ideas and funding, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and read it as a conscious attempt to explore new levels and modes of narrative. Still, I’d be relieved to see his robustness of vision restored.
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85
(this looked very poorly framed; I assume 1.66:1 is correct)
Screened at AMC Empire 25, New York, NY