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Miranda van Kralingen,
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
A master visual allegorist reaches farther and fails. But not for the reasons others claim here. Greenaway has never centered his films in the narrative -- we'd always be frustrated to look for satisfaction there. (`Drowning' which among his works most delivers a story does so incidentally.) And this is a film about women, not sex, which will frustrate others.
Here is his most character-driven film. At last, he works on closeups and some character definition. The primary ordering of the film is by basic archetypes of women, particularly archetypes drawn by men. This is supposed to be his most painterly film: the representative women are to be presented in scenes that reference famous paintings. Greenaway has stated that painting cuts to the basic drivers in cultural revolution, and the representations of women therein are tokens for everything conceived. Women thus are both humans and basic tokens in the redefinition of life.
Such a rich conception is thoroughly Greenawayan and might have formed the skeleton for another masterpiece. Along the way, we have by now familiar devices. Numbers: random as in pachinko rather than ordered. Contrasts between Eastern (here just Japanese) and Western management of concept and image. Some slight use of layered images, here in the self-reference of displaying the screenplay.
My complaints are two. I consider them fatal, but still celebrate Greenaway.
The notion of archetype depends on clarity, a natural orthogonality and completeness of classes. Here we have the nun, whore, Chinadoll, servant, cripple, childbearer, fetishist, butch, and spontaneous addict. Time is invested in defining these. A few are singled out to be something more than props for lush compositions: the geisha chinadoll, the lesbian accountant, the gambler and the opportunistic, openly enthusiastic whore. But in bringing them to life, they escape their categories: two of these are male impersonators, another two financial manipulators, another two vamps. Three are Japanese. Usually, Greenaway's combination of painting (erudite structure and framing of scenes) and film (narrative, development) reinforce one another. Here, they dissonate.
The second problem may be more fundamental. You really have to know your stuff to enjoy these films. My knowledge of The Tempest is rather deep, so I saw how rich was `Prospero's Books.' I read up on restoration comedy for `Draughtsman,' and discovered art in the viewing that I presume no one else in the theater saw. This film is supposed to reference the feminine archetype not as defined by popular culture, but by the history of painting. My knowledge of the art is poor, so I cannot attest to how deep the annotations are here. (Little use is made here of the layered image and narrative comment. Wonder why, since it would have been so natural.
But I do know Gauguin, who also was a visual allegorist, who also worked with feminine archetypes and also the fascination with Asian differences. His monumental canvas `Where are We Going?' does just what this film purports.
I wonder if there is little there in this film.
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