|The Pillow Book
MPAA rating (or equivalent): unrated; would be R or possibly NC-17 for male and female frontal nudity and erotic content
Fetishes are not high on my list of favorite film subjects (witness my review of Crash) but this production by British director Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) is too ambitious and complicated to dismiss lightly. It is the story of a woman who, as a little girl in Kyoto, Japan, was written on every year on her birthday by her father, who recounted a creation myth that says God first creates clay figures and writes various details on them, including their names, and then if he thinks they are suitable, he signs his name to them and thus instills them with life. Each time the father ended his retelling by signing his name on the back of his daughter's neck. Perhaps she took this as giving her life, or at least continuing to reassure her of her father's approval.
As an adult, the girl, Nagiko, no longer able to receive her father's reassurance, seeks body calligraphy and physical intimacy from men she finds randomly. Her quest is to find the man who combines the best calligraphic style and the best love-making technique. Entangled in her fetish is the memory that, on her birthdays, her father not only paid her exceptional attention but was also forced by blackmail to pay extraordinary attention to his publisher, for he was a struggling writer whose literary works were published on condition that he grant homosexual favors to his publisher.
To make a long story too short, her desire to avenge the exploitation of her father and to make rational sense of her calligraphy/sex fetish come together when she meets a man, Jerome (played by young rising English actor Ewan McGregor [Brassed Off]), who is not good at calligraphy but suggests that she go from being the "paper" for the characters to being the writer of them. Though appalled at that idea at first, she experiments and finds it has some merit, and then finds coincidentally that Jerome seems to be bisexual, and one of his erstwhile partners is the publisher who used to blackmail her father. Now she can not only make sense of her writing, she can use Jerome to avenge her father's destruction.
This film is complicated by being mostly in Japanese with subtitles, sometimes in English, and sometimes in other languages (probably the fact that it was funded by grants from at least three European national film boards has something to do with that). And much of the time there is more than one picture on the screen, and even then there are occasionally symbols superimposed on one or more of those pictures to give additional suggestions as to what is going on. We are told that this is part of Greenaway's filmmaking technique, to go beyond the conventional use of celluloid and soundtrack to incorporate other icons of language and meaning. It might become more widely used, and I'd like to see more, but the first time, especially in oblique languages and with characters who are trying to conceal rather than reveal, I found it confusing and somewhat dismaying.
Had my son and I not had time to discuss it in some detail after the screening, I might have given up trying to "get" it. Reading the synopsis in the press kit was another great help; I don't believe I even got the point of the father's relationship with the publisher from what I took in from the theatrical presentation. Other significant details, like the fact that Nagiko's body tatoos at the end are a reproduction of the calligraphy that had been on her lover's body; that 13 books she sends the publisher, printed on men's bodies, are actually poems, and that the climax of the story takes place on New Year's Eve 1999, are also gained only through reading about them. Unfortunately, I could not find an online site for this movie to direct you to for similar details.
This is a film for serious cinema fans and probably not for everyday movie fans. Even Gene Siskel, in giving it thumbs up, said it was beyond him to attempt to understand much of it. This film uses extensive nudity and erotic imagery, but never in a lurid way; unlike Crash, I wouldn't call this pornographic, even in a soft-core (Playboylike) sense.
Photo © by the film's distributor
© 1997, Jon Kennedy