Peter Greenaway's latest foray into highbrow elitism will test the endurance of even his most fervent admirers. 8 1/2 Women indulges his fascination with the human body by allowing a father and son to fulfil their sexual fantasies by setting up a brothel comprised of the title characters, and systematically ogling each of the voluptuous and unusual female forms they encounter.
The compulsive listmaking and mathematical precision of Greenaway's earlier films is present and intact, but the center of 8 1/2 Women is ultimately hollow and painfully obvious. His very concept reduces women to childish fantasies such as the sexually repressed nun (Toni Collette), the pregnant woman (Natacha Amal), the nubile bombshell (Polly Walker), the prudish accountant who wears thick glasses (Vivian Wu, from The Pillow Book) and the woman who adores her pet horse and pig (Amanda Plummer). The "half-woman" has no legs, of course.
If the women are reduced to mere allegorical formulas, the two men at the center of the movie are mere ciphers. International businessman Philip Emmenthal (John Standing) is mourning the death of his wife, and spends the first forty-five minutes of the film drowning in his own tears. He is consoled by his bratty son, Storey (Matthew Delamere), who first attempts to cheer up old dad by sleeping with him. That works out well, so Storey allows dad the opportunity to sleep with him again, this time creating a menage a trois with his new girlfriend (Shizuka Inoh.)
Finally, after treating dad to Fellini's 8 1/2 at their local cinema and having lengthy discussions over whether the director slept with all of his actresses or allowed Marcello Mastroianni to do it for him, they make a decision. They will convert dad's house in Gevena into a brothel to indulge in their own sexual fantasies. Hence, their acquisition of eight and a half women.
The problem with 8 1/2 Women is that, essentially, what you see is what you get. The story lacks the passionate drive of Greenaway's revenge tragedies (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Pillow Book) or the idealistic craving for knowledge and beauty which made Prospero's Books and The Belly of an Architect into poems of art and architecture, the quest for idyllic philosophical bliss. Those films contained the elements which comprise 8 1/2 Women in the form of Sacha Vierny's beautiful cinematography, the fascination with the human body, the stylized classical dialogue and the rich colors and textures found more often in paintings than in cinema.
However, they also featured sympathetic protagonists who had worthwhile goals. It's nearly impossible to feel anything but apathy toward self-pitying Philip and sulking Storey. They remain merely chess pieces to give voice to the images Greenaway presents (i.e., we see Amanda Plummer riding nude on a horse, and Philip will turn to Storey and say something like, "Look - there goes Beryl riding around naked on a horse again." and Storey will say something like, "Oh, how interesting. She always does that.")
The plot consists of these men eventually taking these women, sleeping with them, and, slowly but inevitably, letting each of them slip through their fingers. The question any viewer will be forced to ask themselves is, ultimately, what does it matter? Beautiful images of gorgeous women on a fine estate do not a movie make, no matter how self-consciously the male gaze is being deployed.
One is left to wonder merely how Greenaway convinced such fine actresses as Toni Collette (Velvet Goldmine; The Sixth Sense), Polly Walker (Dark Harbor), and Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) to degrade themselves in such thin material? This British Svengali seems able to convince the crème de la crème of great actresses to strip for his pleasure. Perhaps this highbrow artiste has always really wanted to smear his nose in smut, and 8 1/2 Women is the vehicle for him to come into his own.
One chick too many.