8 ½ Women (1999)
“If every man is supposed to think of sex once every nine minutes, what on earth does he think of in the other eight?”
Director: Peter Greenaway
Cast: John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Vivian Wu
Synopsis: Following the death of a mother, a father and son open up a brothel in their Genevan estate after watching 8½.
There’s something almost insultingly tiresome about Peter Greenaway’s compulsion to shock in order to attract attention; he’s been doing it for more than twenty years now, and watching his films — new and old — is a little like having one’s forehead constantly prodded by the thumb of some warped history teacher who is determined to drill his perverse version of world events into your brain come what may. Greenaway feels he’s got something to say, and he’s keen to share it, but God forbid he should stray from the baffling, obscure manner of communicating that message that has become his trademark. I’m always suspicious of these artistic types who eschew traditional narrative techniques in favour of pretty — but asinine — images designed to confuse most viewers, and to obscure any message so that a myriad of interpretations can be derived from them. It’s one of the biggest con tricks going: Peter Greenaway is one of its premier practitioners, and pseudo-intellectuals, those forlorn figures with nothing to say unless a critic or an artist has spoon-fed them their lines, are his fall-guys.
8½ women’s story revolves around wealthy, recently-bereaved Philip Emmenthal (John Standing — The Elephant Man) and his son Storey (an incredibly irritating Matthew Delamere), a very odd couple who sleep with each other to cope with their bereavement (my, how clever — and shocking). Storey takes his father back to Japan with him, where he manages a string of Pachinco palaces, and events that awaken Philip’s latent sexual fantasies result in the two men installing eight-and-a-half women (one has had her legs amputated) in their Swiss mansion.
The first problem to overcome when watching this flick is that the two main characters are such a pair of obnoxious prats. They conduct a series of bizarre conversations in which no two men — let alone father and son — would engage in real life, and which would mark them out as severely disturbed — but of course this is Greenaway-land, so nobody bats an eye. Not even when, while queuing to see Fellini’s 8½ – to which this is a cockeyed homage – father and son discuss their incestuous tryst; or when, once in the cinema, the father embarks on a lengthy discourse about how he admired his own father’s penis (Eiffel tower, Empire state, etc). The women are equally bizarre: a naked horseback rider who has a relationship with a pig, a debt-ridden, shaven-headed former nun, a Pachinco-addicted Japanese girl, a remote geisha-type, a perpetually pregnant mercenary, etc. They’re all suitably weird, but also curiously boring — even though most of them are in some state of nudity much of the time. Only Polly Walker’s Palmira is a believable — and curiously sympathetic, given her background — character, and earns the best line in the movie. “Men love women, women love children, and children love hamsters. A one-way slide. There is little going back the other way,” she declares while lying naked on a sun-lounger. Each woman represents some aspect of men’s fantasies/fetishes and, as such, their growing power over the two men is quite subtly developed, yet there is no sense of come-uppance for father and son here, suggesting the ‘misogynist’ label often attached to Greenaway isn’t totally undeserved. The women are all too aware of their power, and know just when to use it; by the end of the film they have all taken something from the men while leaving them emotionally and morally unchanged. There is no character arc here — which doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing — but the absence of such leaves this story feeling woefully flat.
In its favour, the film does have some witty interplay between the diverse set of characters at times, but these nuggets are too far apart, stranded between an endless parade of dull, self-indulgent, and pretentious posturing. Although not as visually ravishing as much of Greenaway’s work, he does make effective use of extreme close-ups that give the eye something to dwell on long after the brain has seized up.
8 ½ Women has been described as one of Greenaway’s more accessible films, and it’s true, it is — which should be a strong enough incentive for most people to steer clear of any of his other works. It is, by Greenaway’s standards, a comedy, but not the kind that contains laughs — or even wry smiles. No, it’s that unpleasant, superior, mocking kind — the kind those pseudo-intellectuals love to love, once it’s been explained to them.
(Reviewed 20th September 2008)