The instinct, when beginning to watch a Peter Greenaway film, is to brace oneself, past experience having taught the viewer to expect unerotic nudity, beastly behavior and obscure plotting, seemingly overseen by a coldhearted aesthete with advanced degrees in mathematics and art history, and a mandarin-like contempt for his audience. This disregard for our comfort is willful – Greenaway proclaims his misanthropy in practically every interview he gives – and even when it falters and we’re moved to connect to his characters in some way (as in Belly of an Architect, 1987, or Drowning By Numbers, 1988), we do so with the feeling of sinking into collusion with some unhealthy enterprise.
Perhaps that’s why the director’s two most popular films, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1983) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), are virtually airtight when it comes to letting the viewers’ sympathies in, being visually sumptuous and precisely rendered views of the human anthill that can be safely admired without being actually liked. More recently, with Prospero’s Books (1991) and The Pillow Book (1997), the hermetic feel has become positively stifling as the films offer more moment-by-moment information than one could possibly digest. Or want to.
8½ Women, stylistically, has the feeling of being a plateau film. Neither hermetically sealed nor visually crammed, it manages to work in trace elements of past experiments while advancing the improbable plot in an uncluttered manner. It’s a retreat from the director’s recent hyperactive mise-en-scene which also displays some interesting cracks in his famously curdled worldview, being at times humane, very funny and nearly mellow.
None of this could be discerned from a plot synopsis, which sounds like the usual calculated outrageousness. A recently widowed and unspeakably rich British businessman, inspired by a viewing of Fellini’s 8½, decides to "collect" a harem of 8½ women (the half-woman, of course, being one without legs). This would seem to be a good setup for a contemplation of male sexual fantasies, though not necessarily yours or mine, since Greenaway’s rich and strange imagination gives the harem a Sadean tinge.
Beryl (Amanda Plummer), recently fallen from a horse, wears a transparent upper-body brace which renders her literally statuesque. Griselda (Toni Collette) shaves her head and dresses like a nun. Mino (Kirina Mano) wants to be a Kabuki transvestite, a male-inspired feminine ideal that borders on self-annihilation. Some of the women are less baroque archetypes, and one, Palmira (Polly Walker), is erotic in a casually modern way, more flesh and blood than obscure object of desire.
What makes all this seem much less sinister than it sounds is the droll tone of the script, Greenaway’s directorial restraint and the central performance of John Standing as wealthy businessman Philip Emmenthal. Instead of being some kind of monster, Emmenthal comes across as an essentially decent, deeply befuddled, middle-aged man with a penchant for self-effacing one-liners. Suffering from the wound of his wife’s recent death, he’s open to the consoling schemes of his callow but well-meaning son.
There’s no explicit sex in the film, and even a scene of implied incest between father and son comes across as more wistful than shocking. But then, the fact that so little is shocking nowadays may account, in part, for the film’s elegiac tone. If Greenaway can no longer scandalize his fellow humans, he might possibly, mournfully, join them.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.