Peter Greenaway reminds me of Madonna. After close to 10 years of making records, videos, and movies designed to shock people, Madonna finally got a parental warning sticker on her 1992 album Erotica. Being publicly declared a “deviant” was a fluffy little feather in Madonna’s ever-changing hat, at least for those members of certain circles, for whom deviance equals art. Madonna had finally “made it” when she was censored by the PMRC, and she rode the wave of her newly-elevated reputation for all it was worth. Unfortunately for Madonna, she’s neither a great artist nor does she get under anyone’s skin anymore. She’s too predictable. The same could be said for Peter Greenaway, whose work disturbs the conservative element and serves to brand him The Disturbed Genius, or at least a little touched in the head. And in those same artistic circles to which Madonna still aspires, it gives him a certain credibility, a particular position that only deviance in particular, sexual deviance can secure.
But Greenaway’s deviance, like Madonna’s, is its own brand of conformity. 8 1/2 Women is his latest in a long line of films designed to push his viewers’ buttons, and it does so in his own trademark way, with a story and characters so far removed from reality, so deeply disturbed, that we, as viewers, have no choice but to shake our heads and feel relief in our own normality, as we position ourselves against the characters Greenaway creates and tries to bring to life on the screen. Ultimately, however, the director doesn’t bring much of anything to life.
8 1/2 Women tells the story of Philip Emmenthal (John Standing), a wealthy banker, and his thirty-something son, Storey (Matthew Delamere). While Philip is devastated at the sudden loss of his wife, Storey copes with his mother’s death by literally seducing his father into living out his repressed sexual fantasies, fantasies that start with sleeping with his own son and end with creating a harem of disenfranchised women who live in his mansion and share the attentions of father and son alike. The women are “collected” for the various and specific idiosyncracies they bring to the table, and all are coded as deviant in one way or another: Mio (Kirina Mano) is sexually aroused only by the male female impersonators she finds in traditional Kabuki theatre; Simato (Shizuka Inoh) is addicted to playing Pachinko machines; Beryl (Amanda Plummer) is obsessed with horses, has sex with a pet pig, and spends the first half of the film all but immobilized in a body brace that is positively Cronenberg-esque in its festishizing of flesh and machine. The other women are Kito (Vivian Wu), a stereotypical hard-ass businesswoman; a former nun named Griselda (Toni Collette); the maid of the house, Clothilde (Barbara Sarafin), who cared for the dead wife; Giaconda (Natacha Amal), whose only goal is to be pregnant and rich; Palimira (Polly Walker), a fugitive from the law with a “big black boyfriend”; and the last the “1/2 woman” to whom the title refers is in a wheelchair and has had both legs amputated.
For all their superficial differences, the women are actually surprisingly homogenous, in attitude as well as their intellectual and emotional void, and in their collective role as the “exotic other.” The Emmenthal men assign “their” women numbers within the household, so that they may serve their masters in rotation, in exchange for the restitution of their financial debts, creating a prostitution ring that Philip, in particular, mistakes for some kind of genuine affection on the parts of the women he has “rented.” Both Philip and Storey clearly understand that the women are there to work off their debts, but that doesn’t stop them from commiserating on how one woman is a bit cold, and how another isn’t as adventurous with one man as with the other, as though the women should want to please father as son as men, not just as debt collectors.
While this might seem like the typical and familiar Greenaway misogyny viewers have come to expect, the film appears to preempt this charge by allowing the female characters a certain amount of power; in the end, virtually all the women blackmail Philip into releasing them and sending them off with large chucks of money severance packages, if you will for good measure and silence. The men, of course, feel deeply and predictably betrayed at this, while they are simultaneously relieved to be rid of the overwhelming female presence in the house. The women, supposedly, come out on top, while the men at least start to see the errors of their presumptuous ways.
To say that Greenaway’s attempt to explore the end of the sexual revolution is “flawed” is generous, particularly because he doesn’t seem to understand that a sexual revolution is a multi-gendered enterprise. In 8 1/2 Women, sexual revolution, like sexual pleasure itself, is a masculine prerogative; after all, there is very little that’s revolutionary about prostitution, and the Emmenthal men’s only attempt to go out of their way to please one of the women is still selfish and grounded in their own desire: they dress in traditional Kabuki robes in order to seduce Mio into sleeping with them. While the 8 1/2 women who live in the Emmenthal home help Philip explore his previously latent sexual fantasies, and while Storey takes full advantage of their presence in order to create fantasies of his own, there is absolutely no evidence that the women satisfy any of their respective sexual curiosities. The revolution fantasy that Greenaway creates, like the so-called sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is about women learning to be free to serve men in all sorts of new and exciting ways, but it’s never about women not serving men. Perhaps Greenaway’s method of approaching sexual revolution is to show us that it doesn’t exist. Or perhaps he just hasn’t learned to create female characters who are fleshed out, not just fleshy.
With 8 1/2 Women, Greenaway has taken the passion out of sex, the deviance out of passion, and the sex out of deviance. He’s made Crash without the cars, Sister, My Sister without the sisters, and Kissed without the shining dead bodies. His film is sterile where it should be messy, and it’s all too polished in all the wrong places. Unlike Crash, for example, we don’t see the grit of the characters or get any insights into what motivates their actions. For all its radical potential to explore difficult and complicated issues of inter-generational sex, commodity exchange, and sexualized familial relationships 8 1/2 Women instead strips the excitement and passion out of its subjects.
But 8 1/2 Women isn’t a complete failure. There are moments of real beauty in this film, and even, dare I say it, clarity. Greenaway is a skilled visualist, and his use of lighting and setting is nothing short of breathtaking. The film’s look changes as the story moves back and forth between Japan and Europe, and between the characters’ interpersonal relationships and the Emmenthals’ business ventures: The casino shots are composed with a keen eye toward a video game’s aesthetic, which punctuates Simato’s gambling addiction and enhances the scenes set in Japan, which is where all of Emmenthal’s business transactions take place. These scenes of the Orient portray the women as “exotic” and fetishize Asian culture generally, both forming a wholly seductive economy. Meanwhile, the subtle, rich collection of textures and colors lend warmth to the European scenes of delicate negotiation between the Emmenthal men and “their” women, adding a lushness that betrays the complicated nature of their varied relationships. Greenaway knows all about eye-candy, and he’s delivered it here in all its splendor.
But it’s like a confused painting in a pretty frame. The actors are wildly inconsistent (particularly John Standing), which may have more to do with a total lack of development in the script than a lack of talent in the cast, and the only real bright spots in the film are Walker (whose performance is superb, even given the most lackluster dialogue in recent memory) and Delamere, whose portrayal of Storey invokes just the right mixture of adorable fop and arrogant prick. The film doesn’t let its audience really care about any of these characters, women or men. It simply introduces them, pronouncing how they fit into the household, without giving us any reason to concern ourselves with them as individuals. They are all static and placid, even those who supposedly undergo life changes as a result of their experiences at the Emmenthal home. And even when one of the women dies, it’s hard to care; viewers know that she was a number in the Emmenthals’ line-up who can be easily replaced, and our perspective, as viewers, has no choice but to be aligned with the Emmenthal men: she’s a commodity, and nothing more.
In the end, Greenaway is perhaps a good filmmaker who just doesn’t carry a story. For all his fascination with full male nudity and male sexual explorations, Greenaway just can’t bring himself to do anything really rebellious, or really novel. 8 1/2 Women tries to be disturbing, it tries to be artsy, and it tries to be deep. But in the end, it’s neither disturbing nor artsy, and it’s only deep enough to get your toes wet.