Peter Greenaway's movies look like something you should frame and hang on a wall. His visions almost take the motion out of "motion picture," so painterly are they. He takes this approach to a new level in "The Pillow Book," in which the canvas is not only the screen, but, literally, the characters.
"The Pillow Book" is erotica for bookworms. Its poetic story is told brush stroke by brush stroke, in calligraphy painted on naked bodies and in the "pillow book" or diary of Nagiko (Vivian Wu).
Her sexual fantasies spring from a childhood birthday ritual, when her calligrapher father would paint a story in Japanese characters on her face. On one birthday, she sees her father's publisher (Yoshi Oida) sexually blackmailing him, forever linking writing and sex and setting her destiny in motion.
As a woman, she longs for men who can understand her -- who can read her like a book. On her search for the perfect partner, the man who is both skilled calligrapher and passionate lover, she goes from Japan to Hong Kong and meets sexy, slippery translator Jerome (Ewan McGregor of "Trainspotting").
The man who humiliated Nagiko's father is also publishing Jerome's work. The young translator, however, enjoys paying the publisher's sexual price.
Nagiko, who has resolved to be not only the canvas but the pen, sees seducing Jerome as a way to get her own writing published. Their affair begins calculatedly but soon turns into love; its depth is finally evident when it reaches a pinnacle of hysteria, with Jerome banging on Nagiko's silver door as she leans sobbing against the other side, trembling with every blow.
This love embodies both tragedy and hope for Nagiko, and all of her sensuality is reinforced symbolically as she paints her stories on skin. In "The Book of Secrets," the writing is hidden between fingers and behind ears; in the book for Jerome, it is both beautiful and terribly sad.
Yet this intriguing story is secondary to Greenaway's vision. As in his overwrought but stunning "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," his images are paramount.
Here, the story is told in a succession of symbolic, visual juxtapositions. He lays image upon image; we see a scroll with calligraphy, an elegant subtitle in English, a large moving picture and a small moving picture. As a song plays, a line of its French lyrics moves across the screen. When Nagiko's life is sapped of love, so is the screen sapped of color. This parade of pictures, while dazzling, tends to overwhelm the emotions at the heart of the story.
Yet all of these images do create a motion of ideas. With his evocation of sensuality in changing light, music and words, Greenaway creates a piece of art that suggests a painting but synthesizes experience, just as poems convey a meaning beyond their words through symbols and metaphor. This "book" shimmers.
'The Pillow Book'
Starring Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor and Yoshi Oida
Directed by Peter Greenaway
Released by Cinepix Film Properties
Rated: Unrated (nudity, sexual situations, violence)
Sun score: *** 1/2
Pub Date: 7/31/97