8 1/2 Women (Germany/United Kingdom, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

No one will ever mistake iconoclast director Peter Greenaway for a mainstream filmmaker. In tone, style, and themes, his movies contrast starkly with almost everything else available in the motion picture industry. Greenaway, whose films include The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Pillow Book, seems to embrace controversy. His movies are typified by frequent nudity and stylistic quirks and flourishes. Greenaway's latest, 8 1/2 Women, is representative of the kind of films he has made throughout his career. It's a dark comedy filled with low-key, macabre humor and occasional bubbles of melodrama. Like all other Greenaway movies, 8 1/2 Women transpires in a surreal setting that reflects our reality as seen through a looking glass darkly. Greenaway's characters exist in a vacuum, and the consequences of their actions, if any, rarely extend beyond the boundaries of what's shown on screen.

Thematically and plot-wise, 8 1/2 Women is not an ambitious motion picture. Its central, driving ideas are that sex is important to a healthy, vital lifestyle and that an abstract fantasy is often more fulfilling than the reality. Neither of these are innovative or unusual concepts for filmmakers to embrace. The story is thin and the characters are not well developed; these traditional cinematic elements exist primarily to provide a framework in which Greenaway can operate to present a variety of outrageous sequences.

8 1/2 Women's lead characters are Philip Emmenthal (veteran British actor John Standing), and his adult son, Storey (Sacha Vierny). Following the death of his mother, Storey visits Philip at his Geneva estate, where the older man has yielded to grief-induced depression. The two go to the movies, and, after seeing Fellini's 8 1/2, they are seduced by an idea: collect 8 1/2 women to form a harem. They begin with Simato (Annie Shizuka Inoh), a gambling addict who agrees to be the men's concubine in return for an unlimited line of credit at one of 8 1/2 Tokyo gambling houses owned by the Emmenthals. Next is shy Mio (Kirina Mano), a woman who longs to improve her femininity by becoming a female impersonator. Griselda (Toni Collette, sporting a very odd accent) is a wannabe nun whom Philip saves from a prison term. Beryl (Amanda Plummer, also with a weird accent), who wears a neck brace, has an unhealthy fascination with pigs and horses. Giaconda (Natacha Amal) is continually pregnant. Palmira (a delightful Polly Walker) is a sexual adventuress who agrees to be Philip's whore for a year for the sum of $75,000. Kito (Vivian Wu) is Storey's Japanese interpreter. Clothilde (Barbara Sarafian) is one of Philip's housekeepers. And Giulietta (Manna Fujiwara) is #8 1/2, a wheelchair-bound woman with no legs.

The film uses Fellini's 8 1/2 as a jumping-off point, and there are some thematic similarities, especially in the way both movies stray into the realm of sexual fantasy. However, Greenaway takes his film into darker territory. During the course of 8 1/2 Women, the director challenges two taboos: homosexual incest and bestiality. No deviant sexual practices are depicted, but it doesn't require much imagination for the viewer to figure out what's transpiring off camera. The dialogue occasionally centers on a certain male reproductive organ. At times, Greenaway has his characters rhapsodize poetically about its miraculous construction. On other occasions, the lines are crude, causing one to wonder if Greenaway included them purely for their shock value.

Those expecting all manner of visual oddities will be disappointed. Aside from occasionally superimposing pages of the screenplay over establishing shots, Greenaway rarely does anything surprising or unusual. There are some nice images, such as one in which Storey and Philip sit by the side of a pool and are illuminated by the dancing, undulating reflections of nearby lights off the water, but such inventive photographic instances do little to enhance the story - because there isn't much of a story.

As is always the case with Greenaway films, this one contains copious nudity (both male and female), some erotic and some decidedly not. Greenaway's actors generally don't hold anything back (or keep anything hidden). "Victims" this time around include John Standing, Matthew Delamere, Polly Walker, Toni Collette, and Amanda Plummer. In fact, just about the only one to keep her clothing on throughout is Vivian Wu - and she spent a significant portion of The Pillow Book nude.

8 1/2 Women will split viewers, with fans of the director appreciating its audacity and dark humor while many others will be offended by its crassness, bluntness, and dabbling in taboo subjects. So, unless you like the offbeat simply because it's offbeat, 8 1/2 Women may not be the best choice for an evening's entertainment.

8 1/2 Women (Germany/United Kingdom, 1999)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2000-05-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66