8½ Women
review by Gregory Avery, 14 July 2000

What to say about Peter Greenaway's film 8 1/2 Women? The title, in case you haven't guessed, comes from Fellini: the two main characters take in a showing of the director's 1963 film, and during the scene where Marcello Mastroianni's Guido comes home to a houseful of women, they wonder aloud if Fellini had to sleep with Sandra Milo and Barbara Steele in order to get such an array of womanhood for his film. Fellini, of course, did not, his increasingly phantasmagorical representations of women coming out of psychotherapy he underwent in the Sixties, with the interpretation of his dreams leading to the presence of the lusty blondes, the giantesses, and the girls who shake and moan to rock music like Regan in The Exorcist, that turned up increasingly in his films. What Mastroianni did, on the other hand, was his business.

Storey (Matthew Delamere), the son of Swiss investment banker Philip Emmenthal (John Standing), has just helped his father close a deal in Tokyo to buy a string of pachinko parlors when he gets a phone call, from Philip, back in Geneva: Mum has suddenly died. Storey returns to the family chateau and finds his father in such an overwhelming state of grief over the vacancy of a woman in the house that Storey arranges for his father to spend time with a pretty young woman to, if not actually do anything in bed, at least to take his mind off his emotional state. It works: Philip draws Storey into a plan whereby they could fill up all those gloomy, vacant rooms in the chateau with a whole array of women, all of whom would be at their beck and call.

These end up including three Asian women -- a pachinko parlor addict (Shizuka Inoh), a highly efficient accounts executive (Vivian Wu), and a traditionally-dressed Japanese girl (Kirina Mano) who wants to learn how to be an "onagata," the traditional actor who plays female parts on the Kabuki stage, so she can be even more "feminine" than she already is. There's also a former nun (a humorless Toni Collette, speaking with a yumpin'-yimminy Swedish accent); a Jane Austin-type equestrian who joins them after she falls off her horse (Amanda Plummer, who, starkly made-up and wearing a garishly-styled full-length orthopedic corset, looks like the Bride of Re-Animator); a woman (Natasha Amal) who likes being pregnant all the time ("I'm good at having them," she says about babies); a housemaid (Barbara Sarafian) who agrees to join under the condition that she be allowed to wear the late lady-of-the-house's hats; and a tease (Polly Walker) who stipulates that she'll take-part only under strict contractual terms, and then walks about the place issuing demands like, "I want my bottom spanked today. With intense robustness." (The 1/2 of the title is Greenaway's "pièce de résistance" -- he has one in all of his films.)

Of course, what Greenaway is doing is addressing the objectification of women, and how men talk their way around the fact that they end up objectifying them. This is a useful way to short-circuit any criticism that the film could be objectifying them, too. Some have responded to the picture with intense dissatisfaction, others with guarded approval, but I think the film ends up falling somewhere in between these two poles. The men's merry banter (and there's plenty of it) is sometimes not-bad, but it ends up distancing us from them and from the film, while, in turn, the actions of the women who, one by one, emancipate themselves from the chateau (something which has a Pauline Reáge ring to it that was, probably, intentional), end up having little emotional effect on us.

Primarily, once Greenaway gets everyone all together, he doesn't do anything with them. No giddy explosions of euphoria as couples change partners and bound from one embrace to the next, no wild reactions over the exploration of boundless possibilities, lest things get too priapic in the film. But why summon together eight women when you're only going to portray about as much happening as you would get if there were only one or two? Despite Storey's assertion that he and Philip are following their fantasies to their "exhaustive conclusions," the film itself simply flirts with the material, only giving us glimpses of who-knows-what going on, and the studied perspective begins to induce an unusual, rather queasy air to the proceedings. (One character dies and is dumped, like a sandbag, into a lake. Another dies of concupiscence.)

The film is impeccable on a visual level, with Sasha Vierny, a longtime colleague on Greenaway's films, again doing the cinematography, and with some subtle and cunning manipulations and desaturations of the images for effect. Part of the costuming and production design was done by the great Emi Wada, who has worked on several of Kurosawa's films, among others.

Then there's the fact that most of the nudity in the film turns out to be -- ha! ha! fooled you! -- provided by the two men. Early on, father and son strip-down and stand in front of full length mirrors, and Philip wistfully observes that Storey's body seems full of "immortality," while his is full of "grief." Later, at the cemetery, Philip throws a fit and starts tearing out of his clothes again completely, in public. Considering that John Standing is sixty-six and has done extensive TV and film work on both sides of the Atlantic, this is no small feat. It took guts for him to comply with Greenaway's requests. If only it was for some better cause.

Written and
Directed by:

Peter Greenaway

John Standing
Matthew Delamere
Vivian Wu
Toni Collette
Amanda Plummer
Natasha Amal
Barbara Sarafian
Polly Walker







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