A pillow book is a sort of aphoristic diary favored by Japanese women of the upper classes during medieval times. In Peter Greenaway's new film, The Pillow Book, a modern young woman named Nagiko (Vivian Wu), desires to create the ultimate pillow book, written on human skin. This ambition becomes one with the need to revenge her dead father (Ken Ogata), a writer who was badly handled, in more ways than one, by his publisher (Yoshi Oida). Along the way she has an unbridled affair with a British journalist (Ewan McGregor) who meets a typically queasy Greenaway fate.
The director has often stated his desire to jettison the traditional movie touchstones of conventional plot, character and compositional framing, but for some reason he never quite goes all the way. Pillow's story of exacted penance is told with many original flourishes, but it is as old as storytelling itself. Its characters have recognizable psychological motivations, not the least being simple lust. And Greenaway's compositional experiments with multiple images -- two at a time seem to be his preferred number -- don't noticeably improve on Abel Gance's silent-era efforts along the same lines.
The movie is ravishingly photographed by Sacha Vierny, and there is a brilliant set piece -- a series of human pillow books toward the end -- which almost redeems the whole thing. But the overall impression is that, this time out, Greenaway's glittering surfaces and cavalier nudity are ends in themselves, that deeper meanings can't be coaxed. It's as though his normally penetrating camera had settled into a rapturous gaze, seduced by the beauty of calligraphy on flesh and the otherness of Japan.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.