8 1/2 Women Movie Review
An idly rich father and son, trying to sidestep the grief brought on by the death of their wife and mother, become obsessed with acquiring a varied private harem to exorcise obscured erotic fantasies in eccentric, elitist director Peter Greenaway's sexual pseudo-satire "8 1/2 Women."
The Japan-based, 30-ish son (Matthew Delamere) comes home to his father's (John Standing) Geneva estate with two girls in tow: A taciturn kabuki actress and a pretty young gambler who has agreed to become his concubine to repay gambling debts owed the family's pachinko parlor.
Over the next few weeks they add several more wildly divergent women to their personal bordello -- a "retired" nun (Toni Collette) with a shaved head, a wannabe aristocrat (Amanda Plummer) recovering from a horse-riding accident in a bizarre body brace, an extremely fertile beauty (Barbara Sarafian) who makes a living as a surrogate mother -- but remain confounded, discontented and unfulfilled.
Designed as something of a tribute to Italian cinematic groundbreaker Federico Fellini, whose autobiographical dark comedy "8 1/2" serves as the inspiration for the men's fantasy, this picture is an inconsistent mix of offbeat moods and idiosyncratic sexual peccadilloes.
In true Greenaway style, "8 1/2 Women" takes place in a peculiarly open-minded world where people speak of sexuality like they're talking about the weather. Only in a Greenaway flick would a father and son stand naked in front of a full-length mirror discussing their -- err -- equipment, at length. It's a subject that keeps popping up (Ooo! Stop the puns!) throughout the film, too.
Also in Greenaway tradition, the movie is a visual feast, meticulously-composed in a way that every shot looks like a still life masterpiece with bodies moving through it.
But "8 1/2 Women" is not as harmonious as the director's better, deeper films like "The Pillow Book," and "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover." The big void in the story is that the females have no character arc. Greenaway, far too busy being strange, makes little attempt to understand them, their personalities or their willingness to become kept women.
Most of them are, clearly, emotionally fractured in some vague way. But all of them might as well be props until the arrival of Polly Walker ("Emma") as the last -- and most self-possessed -- paramour, whose presence soon turns the tables on the men. Before long it's the women's fantasies and eccentricities being obliged by the father and son -- who become possessive, neurotic and jealous with the changing winds of sexual control.
Greenaway's films always require work to wrap your head around them. The problem with this one is that before that work can seem worth while you have to overcome the narcissism of the only two characters the director gives a fig about. I managed to do so, and after a while the film grew on me despite my reservations. But honestly, I'm at a loss to explain why.