First, let me state that I am Film Threat’s current expert on Peter Greenaway. No, don’t thank me; it’s a thankless task. None of his films, no matter the quality, can be recommended without a disclaimer, especially this one. Employing narrative almost begrudgingly, Greenaway makes “ART” films. While his latest projects a relatively straight-ahead story, it’s not his best work, either.
The film opens in the midst of a corporate takeover. Wealthy Swiss banker Philip Emmenthal (John Standing) is in a hostile takeover of a chain of Pachinko parlors in Japan. His callow son Storey (Matthey Delamere) remains in the country after to oversee the new family businesses.
Philip’s wife, Storey’s mother, soon dies. Both men are distraught. Storey returns to Switzerland to console his father in some very unique ways. After a viewing of Fellini’s “8 1/2”, Philip poses the question,
“How many film directors make films to satisfy their sexual fantasies?” Well, at least one.
Fascinated by the film’s women, they return to the large family mansion, now mostly empty. The son arrives at the idea to fill the place up with women. Yes, 8 1/2 women. From Switzerland to Japan, the pair recruit concubines to fulfill many of their sexual fantasies. The objects of their desire include the indentured concubine, Simato (Shizuka Inoh); the prim and proper businesswoman, Kito (Vivian Wu); a delicate Japanese transsexual, Mio (Kirina Mano); The retired nun, Griselda (Toni Collette); the eccentric animal lover, Beryl (Amanda Plummer); the house servant, Clothilde (Barbara Saraian); the perpetually pregnant mother, Giaconda (Natacha Amal); the exotic sex goddess, Palmira (Polly Walker), and, uh, Giulietta (Manna Fujiwara). Will father and son find fulfillment? Now if only it were that easy.
Aside from an excuse for a lot of formally posed nudity, the director seeks an alternative to the traditional take on the battle of the sexes. While various financial arrangements are made up front, each of the women has some additional goal in mind. They may be willing to indulge the boys’ sexual fantasies, but not without a price. The Emmenthal men soon find themselves spending much of the time maintaining the happiness of their guests, and in one case, pitted against each other. Outmaneuvered and outnumbered, the men lose all track of the outside world. As individually as they arrived, so do the women go; each on their own terms, not the men’s.
The film, unfortunately, doesn’t quite gel. The director speeds through too much action to resolve the story so little leaves any impression. He seems to be playing with some themes concerning the father’s grief, only to be overwhelmed by all the sex-play. By the end, Storey slowly comprehends that unrestrained hedonism only leads to isolation. It’s no substitute for an honest, human connection. Until he gives up some of himself to another, he doesn’t really possess anything worth having. Or something like that. Whatever.
The Greenaway completist will need to view this work but it’s no place for a novice. If you’re new to the director, you might as well start at the beginning (and suffer like everyone else did). -Ron Wells