Peter Greenaway’s 8 1/2 Women (1999) marks the filmmaker’s last effort to date to secure much in the way of a U.S. release (and even that was spotty). That’s probably not surprising, since even for a Greenaway picture, the film delivered little at the box office. That, too, is also not surprising. Even though a case can be made that 8 1/2 Women finds the director in a playful and more than usually warm frame of mind, it’s every inch a Greenaway enterprise, meaning that conventions and notions of good taste are nowhere to be found. If there’s a taboo anywhere in sight, you may be sure that Greenaway will break it. He’ll do it with marvelous style, mind you, and with a high-gloss polish, but I think this makes the break just that much more disturbing. More than a couple taboos are broken in 8 1/2 Women and as many more are at least badly battered.
The film concerns a father (John Standing) and son (Matthew Delamere). The father mourns the passing of his wife, the son the passing of his mother. At first, they find brief solace in each other’s arms in a largely offscreen, but far from merely suggested, incestuous night together. “I didn’t know we could do this,” comments the father, only to be assured, “We can do anything.” The rest of the film tests that statement. A trip to see Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), with the father still baffled by their sexual encounter (“You’ve heard of young men wanting to sleep with their mothers, but not with their fathers surely. I mean there’s a name for sleeping with your mother, but not with your father”), ultimately leads to the pair “collecting” women in the family mansion in Geneva. Naturally, these total eight-and-a-half (the half being an amputee). It’s an intriguing premise, and finally it becomes a pretty harsh assessment of the male view of domination as nothing more than a pathetic fantasy.
But there’s more. The film also works as something of an indictment of Greenaway himself—and filmmakers in general—as a self-pleasing fantasist. Watching Fellini’s fantasy of all the women in Marcello Mastroianni’s life in 8 1/2, the father wonders of Fellini and the actresses, “Do you think he loved them all? Did he sleep with them all? Or did he get Mastroianni to do it for him?” Further, he asks, “How many filmmakers make films to satisfy their sexual fantasies?” His son answers, “I would imagine most of them.” All this is fine, but the film has a problem in that it has a beginning and an ending, yet lacks a strong center section. The middle of the film, while not without its bright spots of sheer oddity, meanders so much that the ending just seems to come about because the film has run out of ideas. But the ideas it has are certainly provocative!