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Pier Paolo Pasolini
After his wife dies, 55-year-old businessman Philip Emmenthal, at the prompting of his playboy son Storey, populates his Geneva villa with eight and a half concubines. Three are from Kyoto, where Storey manages Pachinco palaces. Each has a distinctive personality: a nun, a child bearer, a gambler, a student of Kabuki, a horsewoman with a pet pig, a maid. Philip throws off his strait-laced and repressed attitudes, immersing himself in pleasure. After about a year, the women begin to assert their own power. Side adventures pre-figure the household's breakup, and the women depart in one way or another, one at at time. Philip's fate is in the hands of Palmira, his favorite. Written by
I've heard and read much criticism about Greenaway's homage to Fellini, "8 1/2 Women", and have found it both predictable and amusing. Every Greenaway film evokes raw, often disturbing emotions in the viewer-- this is nothing new, yet is treated like a revelation with every new release. And some fans and critics of Greenaway seem to be keeping a running score of his visual/emotional offenses, even tending to get irate when he fails to shock or disturb on the level of his other films. But again, this is nothing new.
So I'm humored at the reaction to "8 1/2 Women", for it is as visually stunning/arousing/disturbing as many of its predecessors while it is actually quite tame by Greenaway's standards (for one, the cannibalism/mutilation theme is missing). Yet we have those who are disappointed at the lack of shock or those who are too easily shocked, and Greenaway has long proven that you can't make everyone happy in filmmaking and, honestly, he really doesn't care what you think. You only have to watch.
He is really very similar to Fellini in this way as he is in so many others. I'm no great fan of Fellini's, not as much as I am of his successors anyway, but the parallels are apparent. Fellini worked in absurdities the way Greenaway works in the dire or some artists work in oils. He made the most ridiculous scenarios seem beautiful, artful... even sexy. He imprinted upon film as art and future filmmakers that strange and disjointed often equals desirable, and Greenaway clearly took this to heart. But like Fellini, Greenaway films come with an automatic caveat: You will see things that we are taught to abhor and despise in our society, you will have to think about things from which humans naturally shrink away and you will bear witness to the possibility that great beauty can be found in the mire if you can manage to look long enough. Greenaway's "awfulness" and attempt to disgust you is his medium and his brilliance (and his great joke on you), and if this doesn't sit well with you then you shouldn't watch Greenaway. It's as simple as that.
So, that being said - "8 1/2 Women". Not Greenaway's best, but certainly not his worst. Again we get to share in his great love of the human form in all its beauty and imperfection-- both of body and of character. But this is his most lighthearted attempt and is thoroughly enjoyable for that alone. The relationship between the widower Philip Emmenthal and his earthshakingly prattish son Storey is genuinely touching, as are their relationships with the various women they bring into their lives to replace their lost wife/lover/mother. Equally moving is the fact that these women become much more than mere objects or possessions in their house, but rather individual character studies on the strength of femininity and the power that women have over men. While Fellini's "8 1/2" may have been semi-autobiographical, here Greenaway seems to have tapped into the fantasies and realities of the relationships between men and women everywhere, focusing on the fact that neither are as simple as they seem. And that while mere sex will inevitably falter in the face of deeper love, such meaningful relationships are elusive and fleeting. He doesn't tap very far through, which is this film's only failing; the relationships and characters, some of whom are downright silly, are often taken at surface value and the themes, especially regarding sexual dynamics, are nothing new to cinema.
Nevertheless, "8 1/2 Women" is a lovely, surprisingly sincere and often humorous account of men, women, family, self-identity and the rewards of living out your fantasies along with their tempering costs. Highly recommended for anyone who has been scared away by Greenaway's other films or for anyone else who truly enjoys the beauty found in strong women and faltering men.
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