Write on!

With Pillow Book, Greenaway finds a little heart among the details

The control and manipulation of data, words, and ideas is a big theme in Greenaway's work, starting with his short films and extending to the features: the deceitful class games in his seventeenth-century-set mystery The Draughtsman's Contract; the culture war waged by Michael Gambon's vulgar husband in The Cook; the 13 books Nagiko writes on the flesh of men in The Pillow Book that are used as a tool of vengeance.

Though convinced that the tyranny of neat narratives--the Casablanca syndrome, as he calls it--has to be chucked out for cinema to recover from "a hundred years of illustrated text," Greenaway has perhaps his best shot at accessibility since The Cook with The Pillow Book. It has a few things in common with The Cook: The film's a satisfying revenge yarn, albeit less grotesque; it displays a sophisticated wit and literary appeal; and it has a healthy throughline of sex and nudity. But it is easily his most intimate and even uplifting film, if for the simple fact that he set out with The Pillow Book to "celebrate and delight in the phenomena of sex and text."

Greenaway's springboard is a thousand-year-old book by Sei Shonagon, a Japanese lady in waiting of the Heian Dynasty imperial court. Shonagon's pillow book was a private diary of lists, memories, and sexual adventures infused with wit and imagination--a woman after Greenaway's own heart. The film is a modern variation on Shonagon's passion for literature and sensuality, using the idea of calligraphy on skin to effect a kind of highbrow erotica. Vivian Wu plays Nagiko, a modern-day Japanese woman who discovers that her sexual identity stems from a memorable birthday ritual growing up. Her father, a children's book writer and calligrapher, would paint a birthday greeting on her face while her aunt read her passages from Shonagon's pillow book. Nagiko grew up keeping her own diaries, but when her husband, the nephew of her father's gay publisher, burns them in a rage of intolerance, she leaves him and flees to Hong Kong.

As Nagiko struggles to become a published author, she finds herself seeking erotic satisfaction in a succession of calligraphers who write their texts on her body. When she meets an Englishman named Jerome (Trainspotting's Ewan McGregor), he suggests she use his body as a canvas, and the two fall in love. The film then becomes a lover's paradise of eccentricity and inky naughtiness, staged by Greenaway with a warmth and tactility he has rarely explored before.

Tragedy strikes, though, when Nagiko sends a text-decorated Jerome to her father's old publisher, who becomes so enamored that he and Jerome become lovers too. Nagiko explodes with jealousy, but it is Jerome who cannot bear the pain of losing Nagiko, and he commits suicide. Nagiko then embarks on an elaborate revenge to undo the publisher and restore for herself a lasting, loving memory of Jerome.

Even with the blatantly technical devices Greenaway uses in The Pillow Book, from the multiple imagery to the varied aspect ratios and color changes, the film is, overall, his friskiest accomplishment. This has not a little to do with the boldness of the nudity and the carnal appeal of the conceit. Greenaway is even content to revel in the movie's beauty without feeling a need to make additional aesthetic "comments"; in other words, he has learned how to chill without being chilly.

There's less of the packed-to-the-gills sensation that his Tempest reworking, Prospero's Books, had. But the richness of The Pillow Book is nonetheless enhanced by Greenaway's stylistic noodling. The added images--be they Nagiko's childhood memories or a cubist-style perspective--are layered effortlessly, like dream fragments in gift boxes. When joined with repeated use of a hand-held camera (atypical for Greenaway) and a modern Europop score, the vibe feels contemporary in a way the director's work has never been before. The forced pageantry of past Greenaway films has been abandoned for something intimate, less cold and distant. He even manages an effective allusion to the Easternness of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu in the film's quieter, more ruminative moments. For once, Greenaway has found an intellectual harmony between the high-tech and the heart.

The Pillow Book.
Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata, Hideko Oshida, Judy Ongg. Written and directed by Peter Greenaway. Opens June 20.

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